After a 40-minute morning Zazen session, starting at 4:30 a.m., my classmates and I exited the Zen Hall refreshed and ready for another full day. Taking off our socks and slipping on our simple monastery sandals, we lined up and walked to the morning prayer session. Listening to the chanting of sutras performed by over one hundred monks and participating in many of the ceremonial procedures, we thoroughly enjoyed the experience and intimately learned the inner workings of ceremonial life at the monastery. Soon after the service, we returned to the dormitory hall and ate a traditional Eiheji breakfast consisting of rice porridge, sesame seeds, and pickles.
We then moved to morning chores. I cleaned the monastery bathrooms and experienced what even the most mundane aspects of a monk’s daily routine would look like. After a 90-minute period of Zazen meditation, we ate lunch and then went on a tour around the grounds of Eiheji. On this tour, we learned that the monks of Eiheji have one of the most physically challenging and demanding training practices in the world following closely behind that of the United States Marines. We also learned that the Eihiji monastery was built over 700 years and that the traditions practiced there come from a long line of Zen masters and famous Buddhist figures. Soon after, we gathered in the Zen Hall and got the opportunity to ask the attending monks questions about monastic life and Zen Buddhism. The questions asked ranged from the changing nature of Buddhism in Japan to the shifting roles of women in monastic life.
After the discussion, we were treated to a special monastic dinner consisting of several different vegan dishes, tea, and sweets. The meal was wonderful and it was especially exciting to see how enthused many of the monks were to have been treated to such a meal for such an occasion was out of the ordinary for them. We then proceeded to watch a movie about the monastic life and training of monks in Eihejei. Through this movie, we learned that newly incoming monks are left to stand in the cold outside for hours before being allowed into the monastery as a new recruit. This is a tradition that is often used by the monastery to test the strength and will of many of the overly ambitious monks. We ended the day with a final session of Zazen and then quickly retired to sleep, tired out from a day of new and exciting experiences.