Bob’s stay at Eiheiji

Oversized snowflakes drifted langorously down from the sky, piling themselves carelessly on the limbs of centuries-old cedars. A choir of unseen frogs in the lotus-filled ponds croaked out their songs of desire. The presence of Dogen Zenji, the legendary founder of Soto Zen, permeated the ancient halls of Eiheiji, the temple he founded more than 750 years ago.


OK, so I made up the part about the frogs. Didn’t actually hear any frogs at all. But it was really snowing, although that’s not surprising since it was March and Eiheiji is located in modern-day Fukui, in the region called Hokuriku, where Kawabata set his famous novel “Yukiguni” or “Snow Country”. And there were really tall cedars, including the “Godai-sugi” located right in front of the “Sanmon” or Main Gate, and said to date back to the time of one of Dogen’s immediate successors.

As for Dogen’s unspoken presence, I didn’t actually feel that very strongly either. The dominant impression was of a whole bunch of monks eating, sleeping, and sitting. They engage in all three of these activities on the single tatami-mat assigned to them in the Sodo or Monks’ Hall, a dark, cavernous building said to have last been renovated one hundred years ago—I sure hope they don’t wait another hundred to renovate it next time! We didn’t stay there, but it looked cold. But actually that building is one of the older buildings at Eiheiji; there is nothing that dates back even close to the time of Dogen, the very oldest structure being the 250-year old Sanmon. Turns out that wooden buildings burn and fall down. Actually, it seems that the current location is not even that of the original Eiheiji, it having moved at some point in the past.

The overall layout of Eiheiji is modeled on a seated Buddha, with the Sodo corresponding to the right elbow The Hatto The Hatto (Dharma Hall) is at the top of the hill and corresponds to the Buddha’s head. The Buddha Hall is more or less in the middle and is his heart. His right elbow maps to the Sodo and the left to the Daikuin (kitchen), while the bathroom (Tousu) and bath-house are his knees. The Sanmon is his hands.

As long as we are giving the little tour, I’ll mention that the buildings are all connected by covered hallways, their wooden floors gleaming from daily polishing by the monks during samu. Other buildings in the complex, besides the new building where we stayed, include a temple dedicated to Dogen Zenji and where his ashes are kept, the 102-year-old Zenji’s quarters, where we noticed, incongruously, a pile of teddy bears sitting in the waiting area; and buildings related to the funeral business, basic to the economic model of all Zen temples in Japan.

I visited Eiheiji under the program they call “sanzen”, a sort of dumbed-down four-day intensive for lay people. I have to appreciate the effort the people at Eiheiji have gone to to make it possible for people like me to go there and have an experience of life at a monastery. They make some reasonable attempt to give you a flavor of the rhythm and style of the monastic life. Of course, you do not really live among the monks, but rather in their ugly new administration and reception building called “Kichijo-kaku”. The accommodations are spartan (futons on the floor), but at least the building is heated, unlike the Sodo where most of the real monks stay. The food is what everyone there eats and is very good, if simple.

The first meal of the day is “shou-jiki”, and is just rice gruel and pickles, although each day the gruel was perked up with something—little kernels of corn, or little pieces of mochi. That is the only meal of the day for which the spoon is used. Lunch, or “chuu-jiki”, is rice, miso soup, pickels, and a couple of side dishes, such as hijiki or boiled vegetables. Dinner, called “yakuseki”, is much the same. All of the meals are eaten in the highly-stylized “o-ryo-ki” style, which turns out to be something quite different than the much more Westernized and simpliifed system I learned at Zen Mountain Center. There was so much mental energy around eating there that sometimes I got the feeling that the real reason I was there was to go to o-ryo-ki school, with some sitting thrown in to kill time.

The differences range from additional rules about how to unpack and repack your eating implements, to new steps such as the use of both hot tea and hot water during the clean-up process. Some of the changes have an obvious logical reason, such as washing the outside of each bowl by dipping it sidewise in the next smaller bowl filled with hot water and rotating it. Overall, though, the differences give a whole different flavor to the o-ryo-ki process; instead of making it seem more artificial and ritualized, they actually seem to enrich and complete the scheme.

One particular difference is that you eat with your bowl held high, near your mouth, and your elbows held out to your sides. This has the effect of focusing your attention on the meal and the eating process. Small things, like placing your chopsticks back on the middle bowl with both hands, or picking up your chopsticks (also with two hands) first, adling them between your thumb and index finger, and only then picking up the bowl you plan to eat from, have the effect of giving the overall eating process a sort of attractive dignity.During the noon meal the offering is given to the Buddha—seven grains of rice. (For some reason, in the ZMC version, this is done during all meals. In the Eiheiji version the problem that occurs at ZMC as to which food to offer—the macaroni and cheese, or the salad?—does not arise since there is rice at every meal). One unfortunate participant managed to drop his little bunch of rice on the floor, since this is a traditional Soto monastery where you are eating on the ledge of the “tan”. The response by the monks watching over us was quite astonishing—they ran over to his seat, with everyone bowing and gassho-ing while the rice grains were retrieved from the floor. I guess this only needs to happen once or twice before you start getting very focused when sticking the offering on the end of the “setsu”, or spatula. God knows what would happen if you happened to drop your chopsticks, or heaven forbid an entire bowl, on the floor.

I found it interesting that there was no real attempt to teach anything about Zen. We learned different bowing styles; the gassho should be a real gassho, with arms held up parallel to the ground, fingers an inch from your nose. And shashu, and how to behave physically in the Zendo, including such details as the direction to rotate your zabuton when plumping it back up after sitting (clockwise). But no-one ever talked about the mental aspects of the meditation process. In this retreat, there was also no dokusan or interviews with the teacher. I imagine this is indeed how Zen is taught normally in Japan, including to the monks who come to Eiheiji to live for one or two or three years—a sort of throw them in the water and see if they can swim process, or maybe it’s more along the lines of getting them so frustrated and/or confused that when a teacher finally deigns to spend a couple of minutes with them they value the opportunity much more and take it much more seriously.

The monks that dealt with us, probably six in all, were not very chatty and as such we did not obtain much information about who they were or what they were thinking. We did get some clues, though. It seems that the majority of the 200+ monks at Eiheiji are there for a relatively short time, by which I mean 1-3 years, after which they intend to go back and run their family temple. Although they could take over the family temple without a stay at Eiheiji, by doing their time they get some kind of certification.

Frankly, my impression of the monks at Eiheiji was that many of them were in fact just “doing time”. It may seem strange to a Western student of Zen that someone with the chance to study at the premier Soto temple in the world would choose to just go through the paces, but that was indeed my impression. To my Western eye, the monastic life there does seem quite limited and limiting. The schedule provides no time for personal activities. Even activities such as taking a bath, which at ZMC occur during “personal” time, are carried out in groups, the monks all proceeding in a single line to the bath house and taking their bath together—something made possible by the big Japanese-style bath tub (although we were not allowed in the actual “yoku-shitsu” or bath house used by the monks). Samu is more group-oriented as well. As far as I could tell, there is little to no time at least for the junior monks to do any studying or reading either. One of the monks told us that the organization systems at Eiheiji were so well-developed that the Japanese armed forces visited them to study how they did it. Well, they should be well-developed—they’ve had over seven centuries to work out the kinks. It is quite amazing when you think about it that daily life at the temple is probably quite close to what it was at Dogen’s time—one of the few institutions in the world, I would say, that has maintained consistent forms for such an extended period of time.

The sanzen program is open to anyone who wants to come but is certainly not oriented to non-Japanese speakers. Some Westerners might have trouble with sitting in seiza for a whole hour during the morning services. The schedule itself is pretty close to a ZMC sesshin, although they haven’t gotten around to adding yoga to the schedule yet—that will probably take another 750 years.

Japanese readers can find more information about Eiheiji here.
Information about the sanzen program can be found here.
A Japanese book called “Kuu, Neru, Suwaru” (“Eat, Sleep, and Sit”), about one man’s experience as a monk at Eiheiji, can be found here.

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