A once-in-a-lifetime experience

The ideas and viewpoints expressed in the posts on the Ideas and Creations blog are solely the view of the author(s). Luther College's mission statement calls us to "embrace diversity and challenge one another to learn in community," and to be "enlivened and transformed by encounters with one another, by the exchange of ideas, and by the life of faith and learning." Alumni, faculty, staff, students and friends of the college are encouraged to express their views, model "good disagreement" and engage in respectful dialogue.

"A once in a life-time experience" seems to be the tagline of some of our J-term study abroad courses. At least this is the motivation quite a few students cite when they sign up for one of my study abroad courses to East Asia. So when Tony Mutsune and I offered our "Working Japan," a Paideia 450 that explored corporate and religious cultures in Japan, this tagline seemed to be more appropriate than ever: not only was it the first time that a Paideia 450 course at Luther College brought together faculty from our two departments, we also scheduled quite a few activities that are not that easy to come by for the accidental tourist to Japan. And for no activities this tagline seemed more appropriate than for our four-day stay at Eiheiji, a Sōtō Zen monastery that is almost 800 years old. I will use Japanese "four character phrases" ("yo-ji-juku-go" 四字熟語) to reflect on our experience.

"One time–one meting" ("ichi-go-ichi-e"  一期一会): Eiheiji is a beautiful and old monastery in the Southern part of the Japanese Alps just East of Kanazawa City. It is off the beaten path of many tourist agencies. When I visited there last summer to set up our January visit, a cab driver complained to me about the low number of tourists who rather stayed in Tokyo and Kyoto. However, while it is possible for tourists to visit Eiheiji, it is comparatively difficult to stay there overnight, let alone to participate in the monastic life there. We were able to set up such a monastic experience for our students because Rev. Shoken from Ryumonji in Dorchester, Iowa, introduced us to Rev. Taiken Yokoyama, the director of the office of international affairs at Eiheiji. Rev. Yokoyama not only welcomed us with open arms, he set up a unique program for us that was tailored to the special needs of 24 students and two faculty unfamiliar with meditation and Zen monasticism and served to introduce us to life in a monastery and Buddhist practice. Rev. Yokoyama invited three more meditation teachers, all fluent in English, to be our guides, teachers, interpreters and friends. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"Fish on a chopping board" ("so-jō-no-uo" 俎上の魚): When we arrived at Eiheiji in the afternoon of January 20, after a fantastic day with the faculty, students and staff of Seriyō University in Kanazawa that included visiting the gold-leaf industry, a tour of the old city, eating gold and bowling, the mood of our students was somewhere between curious, skeptical and excited. Upon arrival at Eiheiji, we were shown our quarters and introduced to the rules: No talking during meals, no socks during chanting service in a hall that featured thin walls but no heat (there was snow outside!), getting up at 4 a.m., no showers in the morning, a basic vegan diet and 40-minute meditation sessions. The most difficult rule for our students, however, one that dwarfed the silence during meals and even the double headers of two 40-minute meditation sessions interrupted only by 10 minutes of walking meditation, was the prohibition to use any electronic device. It was this requirement to cut off all connection to the outside world (even if it was only for a few days) that threw us for a loop. It seemed that the center of our lives had dropped away. In addition, the routine was unfamiliar, the silence was overpowering and the sound of the stick of compassion adjusting the posture of meditators upon their request was disconcerting. This experience took us way out of our comfort zone, confronted us with our limits and forced us to encounter who we truly are.

"Self-effort–self-gain" ("ji-gō-ji-toku"  自業自得): It was in these moments that we realized that meditation requires effort, sitting still demands concentration and facing oneself is hard work. Having given up all distractions––mainly in the form of smartphones and computers––and following strict guidelines of what to do how and when, all mental energy was set free to concentrate on one task: getting to know ourselves. And while this sounds wonderful and empowering, the reality of it was quite unsettling. Sitting for what seemed like hours cross-legged, being acutely aware of the muscles in our legs and back, we were confronted with our anxieties, our shortcomings and the façade that we put up. Some of us sought the counsel of the monks and nuns who joined our monastic experience to guide us, some of us turned inside and some of us waited for the four days to end and be over. Whatever our go-to strategy was, however, we did spend this time with ourselves. The effort we put into the work that is mediation and self-reflection paid off in the awareness of how little we actually need, who we really are and what is important to us.

 "Rising from death–return to life" ("ki-shi-kai-sei" 起死回生): And the retreat did come to an end. Four days do not last forever. Already on our second full day, we had a few hours of free time in which we could explore the temple and the village. For this purpose, we were given our cameras and could re-acquaint ourselves with information technology. On the subsequent day, we said goodbye to our hosts, took the train out of the mountains just in time before an approaching snowstorm hit the region. We had our belongings again. We were listening to music. We could eat whatever we liked. We had returned to life as we know it.

And just when we enjoyed "being back" something odd happened. For no other reason than the pressures of arranging multiple events on a three-week study trip, we had scheduled a visit to the Ritz-Carlton Kyoto that afternoon. We owed this visit to Arne Sorenson, a Luther College alumnus and member of the Board of Regents. It was a fantastic and well-organized visit. The directing manager and the staff members we met were as friendly as our teachers at Eiheiji. We had wonderful discussion about management and service in the hospitality industry. Marveling at the magnificent facilities at the hotel, it occurred to us that we had left one world, the world of simplicity, and entered a completely different one, the world of luxury. While not intended, the opportunity to be emerged in two seemingly opposite worlds on one and the same day made for an exceptional learning experience. 

"Flower of opening insight" ("kai-go-no-hana" 解語の花): Regardless of whether we were conscious of this juxtaposition, the experience of these extreme opposites in one day shaped the way we looked back at our time at Eiheiji. While we were waiting for the bus to get us to Fukuji City where we were scheduled to catch the train to Kyoto, quite a few students expressed relief of having returned to their lives. However, when I read the reflection papers about the monastic experience that were written some time in Kyoto days later, a different theme emerged: gratitude for the monastic experience at Eiheiji, gratitude for the kind and compassionate teachers who took off time to guide us, gratitude for the time of self-reflection and even the silence, gratitude for the experience of simplicity and for a short time away from the devices that seem to control our lives, and gratitude for the opportunity to share the practice the monastics at Eiheiji have been engaged in for almost 800 years. Finally, as our teachers told us on our last day in the monastery, our students did extraordinarily well. The completion of these 72 hours of arduous and demanding practice constituted a major accomplishment. Our temple stay was something to be proud of, something not many people in the Midwest have had the opportunity to experience, something to look back upon. Not that anyone of us would want to embrace this lifestyle. But this was not the purpose of our visit anyway. By the time the students wrote and I read their papers, the stay at Eiheiji had taken on an extraordinary significance. The experience of facing one's limits ("Grenzerfahrung" in German), knowing oneself and realizing what is important, is not merely academic, it can and probably will be transformative. In any case, it does constitute a once-in-a lifetime experience.

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf

Gereon Kopf is professor of religion at Luther College. Kopf is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Buddhist Philosophy. He is also the author of Beyond Personal Identity and the co-editor of Merleau-Ponty and Buddhism. He publishes in the areas of Japanese Buddhism, comparative philosophy and intercultural understanding. At Luther College, he is the coordinator of the Asian Studies Program, organizes the student meditation group and teaches study abroad courses in Japan, Hong Kong and China.

View all posts

{ Return to Ideas and Creations for more posts. }


  • March 11 2018 at 6:46 pm
    Tony Mutsune
    I am not a student of Zen, but with the much I observed it seemed to me that with the discipline of quietness comes a sense of self-mastery. Without the usual distractions that constantly engulf us, there was nothing else to come face-to-face with but self. It is difficult to imagine what the conversations with self involved. In some strange way, the usual disturbances of life seemed strangely impotent to exert their influence. For most, this passes as a rare experience if not a “once in a lifetime experience.” Thanks Gereon for insights.
  • March 13 2018 at 11:47 pm
    Gereon Kopf
    Thanks, Tony, for your wonderful comments and for joining me for the P 450 class/study trip in/to Japan. I think it is a good observation that the core of our monastic experience and of "sitting mediation" in general does not require a commitment to a specific religious ideology or theology. Putting aside the distractions we surround ourselves with in daily life and spending more time listening to our body, becoming aware of our feelings, and facing our thoughts is an important experience and exercise regardless of who one is and what one believes.

Add a comment

The following fields are not to be filled out. Skip to Submit Button.
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)
(This is here to trap robots. Don't put any text here.)