Tuesday, August 01, 2006


After staying at the zen-temple Bukkoku-ji in Obama for two and a half weeks I`m now staying with the family of my girlfriend in Yahata, Kita-Kyushu (in the north of the southern island Kyushu of Japan).
During my stay at Bukkoku-ji, there were many interesting things I could do and see. Basically, you could say living in a temple would have the same pattern every day and not much variation, but at this temple every day was different. Still, there were certain things we did do every day, but to which I couldn`t get used during the first week. These consisted of:
4:40 Wake up
5:10 Excercises
5:40 Zazen (1 x 40 min.)
6:20 Chanting (morning ceremony)
7:00 Chanting (Kannon ceremony)
7:20 Breakfast
7:45-8:00 Cleaning

11:30 Lunch

16:00 Chanting (Evening ceremony)
17:00 Dinner
18:20 Zazen (3 x 40 min.)
21.15 Go to bed

If you would read this schedule, there is no reason to think it would be very hard to go through every day. But the problem is that during almost each part, the way of sitting is not very comfortable if you`re not used to it. During zazen, you sit with you legs crossed, and that is sure to hurt after 40 min. During the chanting and the meals, you sit in seiza (on your knees, sitting on you feet) and that hurts already in about 10 min. So the first three days were very painful, and the first week was not very pleasant either. But I gradually got used to the pain and to the way of sitting, so after about 10 days I could go through the days with not too much difficulty. This was the hardest of the whole lifestyle there, so for those used to that way of sitting it`s not a very hard life. For me who didn`t do any zazen for about 10 months, on the other hand, it was quite hard to get through the day.
Next to this fixed schedule we would normally have `samu`, working, from 8:50 to 10:00 and from 13:30 to 15:00. Because at those times at least my legs wouldn`t hurt, this part of the day I liked most in the beginning. Most of the work consisted of weeding in the gardens were the monks grow all kinds of vegetables, but we also cleaned a small waterway around the temple, cleaned the zendo (where they do zazen) and as a dutch guy I also spend one afternoon repairing some of the bikes of the temple.
About once in 5 days the men would leave the temple to go on `takuhatsu`, a trip through the neighbourhood, the town or even other places to go along the houses and ask the people for money (technically, they stand in front of the house chanting a sutra and then the people can decide whether they want to give something or not, so they don`t directly ask for money). The first to times on such an occasion I stayed home with the women and other newcomers, but the third time I was asked if I wanted to go aswel. Because it is a nice experience to see those places were they go and because it seemed to be quite hard to walk a whole day in those monk`s robes and on straw-sandals I decided to take the challenge and see if I could keep up with them. Apparantly I had good straw sandals, because they didn`t really hurt and it was not very hard for me to walk from one train-station to the next, chanting the `Enmei-juku kannon-gyo` time and time again. After that first time, I went one more time, now along the seacost and by car to get from one village to the other. It was very nice to walk through the countryside and through small places were there wasn`t even a trainstation.
Every day with a 4 or a 9 in the date was bathing day and a kind of holiday, so we didn`t have samu then. However, the rest of the schedule was still in place, so for me it meant that only the nicest part of the program would be cancelled. By the way, we could also take showers at any other time we wanted, expecially during the hot summer. All the time we didn`t have any of the above activities (the fixed schedule and the work) we had time for ourselves, so that was quite a large part of the day. At those moments many people would just take a nap, because it was not very much appreaciated to read books there. The priest thought it was better to just practice zazen and not spend too much time on reading the stories of other people who had experienced zazen.
The temple was quite easy going compared to most (or maybe any) other zen-temples. First of all, it was a temple of the Soto-shu of zen, which is not as strict as the Rinzai-shu. For the rest, the priest didn`t seem to mind if someone would not go to the chanting or zazen, at least there were normally few monks who turned up at the evening ceremony. Next to that, we had all kinds of food for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and even after samu we would always get all kinds of candy. Most of this food was donated to the temple and that was so much that we almost couldn`t eat all of it before it would go bad. Especially in this season there were lots of tomatoes, cucumbers and plums that we got and the cooks had to think of ways to make something out of it for every meal. Most of the vegetables we got were not `perfect` enough to sell to regular consumers, so the growers would give all the unsellable vegetables to the temple. I always wondered how Japanese tomatoes could be so perfect, but they just give or throw all the not so perfect ones away!
Another thing that was very different at this temple compared to other zen-temples was that anyone who wanted to stay there for a while was welcome to come. Therefore, there are many foreigners who stay there for a few weeks like me, or a few months and some foreigners even stay there for years and become monks. There are also Japanese who do the same: some even staying for just a few days, and others becoming monks there. Maybe half of the people there were foreigners from all over the world: New Zealand, the US, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Poland etc. With so many different people there, you can always have a chat with someone about Japan, other countries, buddhism or their experiences at the temple so far, so instead of being in a quiet place where everybody is only concentrated on meditation and reading sutra`s, Bukkoku-ji is quite lively and a good place to learn lots about many things from many different people. Therefore, it`s maybe not a `real` zen temple in that it`s not that strict and people aren`t that focussed on only meditation. On the other hand, the fact that so many people can experience zazen there and practice it in their own way makes it a very friendly, open minded place. The priest there, Roshi-sama, is also completely used to the many foreigners and is very well able to express himself with the few English words he knows. And his frienliness and openness to anyone who comes to Bukkoku-ji is also admireable. By anyone living there he is regarded as the one who keeps the place alive, even if he doesn`t participate consequently in all activities because of his old age. But next to meeting so many interesting people at that temple, the few times I spoke to Roshi-sama were already worth my trip and stay in Obama.