DharmaBum Visits the Hosshin-ji Soto Zen Monastery in Obama, JP
A Day of Sesshin in a Zen Monastery by Dave Morrow from California
Bare feet run through the darkness, thumping out a Doppler pattern on the wooden floor. A hand bell’s hammer banging against its vibrating shell, gives the still, chilled air a heart attack. It’s 3:45 A.M. A cold November morning awaits the monks of Hosshinji, a small Japanese training monastery, made famous decades earlier by Kapleau Roshi and his Three Pillars of Zen.
Practitioners scramble up from beneath their futon covers, and enter the toilet area. It’s aflutter as if it were some kind of silent backstage Broadway play. Men wait in line to splash their heads and faces with ice cold tap water as others come and go into the immaculately cleaned bathroom stalls, which are no more than a rectangular covered hole in a pine floor. Black robes, not allowed near toilets, are hung on racks just outside the sliding shoji doors.
One by one, residents and guests enter the zendo, mindfully lifting their left foot over the threshold first, touch their palms together in gassho and bow as they then make the 90 degree turn into the hall. A wooden fish the size of surfboard is suspended above head height, eying each as we enter. We find our sitting cushion on the mat where we left it six hours ago. The tan (tawn), a three-foot high platform, surrounds the perimeter of the room. There are also platforms to the left and right of the altar in the center of the room. And for those pesky foreigners who are new to sesshin and haven’t yet memorized the million and one monastic rules to keep them mindful in each breath, there is the space outside the zendo in the main foyer. Mindful taps of the hanging bell echoes in the first of three thirty-minute sittings, interspersed with two fifteen minute walking periods.
All sit silently straight on cushions facing one another as Roshi enters the zendo. “Bam-Bam!” “Bam-Bam!” Roshi, fearlessly swinging the dreaded keisaku, makes his way down the rows. Doing this he encourages his students to “wake up,” not just from their paltry night’s sleep, but also in the biggest sense of those words.
Rumor has it that in the not-to-recent past Roshi was encouraging his students in a similar fashion one morning when he stood in front of a monk who smelled like a bar room floor on a hot August night. The monk had used the secret gate out of the monastery the previous evening, snuck into town and drank until the Kobe cows came home. This act, known as Hoko, is sometimes accepted as a way to shake off the rigors of the rigid monastic lifestyle. However, Roshi certainly didn’t see that way, not during Sesshin anyway, and quickly broke the keisaku and the drunken monk’s collarbone in one swift whack.
Located in the Lake Biwa area of Japan’s largest island, Hosshinji is a four hundred year old Soto Zen monastery traditionally located at the base of a forested bamboo canyon. In the 1920’s monks came here from monasteries all over Japan for Sesshin, an intensive, silent training period lasting five to eight days, because of one famous teacher: Harada Roshi. Harada was one of Zen’s first teachers to effectively combine techniques from both the Rinzai and Soto schools of Zen to spur on Satori, an experience of enlightenment. It’s easy to imagine the many monks who came to overcrowded sesshins here to find the only sitting space was the snow-filled courtyard adjoining the zendo, where many monks did indeed meditate.
Lining up behind one another for walking meditation, I notice the salt and pepper hair of the German monk in front of me has emerged and covered his bald scalp, which shined brightly just five days before. No shaving or bathing during sesshin is allowed in order for participants to focus on their practice completely.
After three sitting periods breakfast is served Orioki style. Traditional and simple Japanese food is distributed swiftly. Rice gruel with few vegetables and salt is poured into eating bowls. Hand gestures are used to say “more” or “not much.” Green tea is poured without a drop being spilled. Various invocations are chanted before, during and after all formal meals.
Samu begins after a short break to change into work clothes. Students are given rakes this day and are expected to clean away all leaves that have fallen throughout the grounds. Gates traditionally locked during Sesshin are opened to allow work to be done. We are cautioned not to enter an area above the cemetery surrounding the main buildings. Angry hawk parents protecting their young have nested there and have been known to attack if one wanders too close. Months before a young monk had a cloth worn on his head torn off and carried away by an outraged momma raptor. At the sound of the bell, all work stops mid-sweep and everyone returns for the next sitting period.
At 7:00 PM a heightened energy circumnavigates the brisk air of the zendo. The period bell rings and all sit for several minutes. Suddenly the sharp clack of wooden sticks explodes from the zendo’s threshold. “SOSAN!” yells the head monk. Like wild rats leaping off a listing ship, participants jump off their cushions and sprint out into the night. Up the gravel path we run to the Buddha Hall where all the Mr. Hyde’s return to their Dr. Jekyll form and step into the hall.
The Head Monk lines us up based on who first entered the Buddha Hall. Sixty people, who have sat together for five days, now sit without aid of cushion, mat or respite, for there are no breaks during Sosan, the one-on-one interview with the Roshi. Interviews can last from ten seconds to thirty minutes or more per person. The physical discomfort one has to endure sitting on the floor with your legs underneath you for an indefinite period of time can be challenging to say the least, or downright horrid to say the most. Time slowly passes and eventually I eek nearer the front. A teenage boy, who is now first in line hears the tinkling of the Roshi’s hand bell signaling him to come. He rings the floor bell mounted in front of him three times and tries to stand. Once erect he immediately collapses like an imploded building. His father sitting behind him and in front of me silently watches. The boy crawls once on all fours, pulls one leg beneath him, stands and walks down the hall. Ten minutes later the bell rings for the boy’s father to come to Sosan. Slowly, like a sickly giraffe that hasn’t stood for days, the man climbs to his feet with as much dignity as he can muster and limps slowly down the hall.
It is now my turn to enter Sosan with Roshi. I stand as best I can and walk as best I can down the hallway. I pass the beautiful, ornate statue of Shakyamuni Buddha on the Hall altar and walk down the long red hallway toward the interview room. How many thousands have walked these steps before me? Kapleau Roshi, the founder of the Rochester Zen Center lived here for a twelve-year period after the Second World War. Harada Roshi, said to have guided hundreds to awakening spent his life here. And what of his teacher and teacher before that? An American monk who lives at the monastery deciphered my teacher’s words, as French and German monks translated their countrymen’s words at this very international training center.
Once outside, I pause to find the moon hiding behind pine trees. In the stillness and warmth of the zendo we chant the “Heart Sutra” and the “Identity of the Relative and the Absolute.” We then bow and walk back to our quarters in preparation for the next day of Sesshin.
Please contact Dai Gakyu if you're interested in learning more about The Hosshin-ji Soto Zen Monastery in Obama, Japan.
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