Life in a Zen Training Temple14 min read

There are many thousands of Zen temples in Japan, where there is a priest who ministers to his parish, consisting of the local families which are registered as belonging to the Zen sect. It is families which are registered, not individuals, and this illustrates that in many cases his services are connected with social occasions. Some Buddhists say ruefully that Japanese only see the family Buddhist priest on the occasion of a funeral. Though there are so many local temples, there are only a score or so of training temples; these are places where would-be priests (and some mature priests also) go to take some training towards Zen realization. A young aspirant might stay in a training temple three to five years-he would not expect to have attained the final realization which is the end of the training, but he would have had some metal put into him, as the Buddhist saying goes.

He cannot enter a training temple directly, but must first have served some years at an ordinary temple, under the priest there. So he has two teachers: first is the Dharma teacher, the priest at the temple under whom he begins his study of Buddhism.Under this teacher he learns many details of ritual and service, and also long-passages of the Sutras by heart. Some of these are in Sanskrit (surprisingly well preserved over the centuries), and he may or may not know the meaning of all that he recites. He must also know by heart, and know the meaning of, some Sutras in Chinese, such as the Heart Prajna-paramita Sutra, which is one of the key scriptures of the sect. He gets a straightforward knowledge of Buddhism in theory and practice. The severity of this part of the training depends entirely on the priest who controls it. Since the Meiji Restoration in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Buddhism was disestablished in Japan, priests have been free to marry. Many of them own the temples where they officiate, and it often happens (following the tradition in other professions also) that one of the priest’s sons is to carry on at the temple.

When he goes to a training temple, he meets his second teacher, the Roshi or training teacher. A young candidate (about eighteen is a common age) turns up with a letter from his Dharma teacher to the training temple. Nevertheless he is told the place is full. He has to wait in the garden for two days and nights, with his forehead resting on the stone steps leading up to one of the meditation halls. He is repeatedly told that there is no room, and periodically, every two or three hours, he is physically driven away out of the temple into the road, The guardian monks patrol the gate for half-an-hour before they go away and he again comes in quietly and takes up his position on the steps.

He is then allowed inside, but put in an unfurnished room where he may not lie down to sleep. He is given some severe questioning by seniors of the training temple, and if his replies are not satisfactory (they hardly ever are), they reinforce their displeasure by beating him with the formal Kyo-saku or “warning stick”.
If he survives for a week, he is allowed to enrol. Part of the enrolment procedure is to deposit with the local Prefect’s office a declaration that he accepts whatever treatment the temple may give him voluntarily, and that if he should be injured or even die as a result of it, no responsibility rests on the temple.

As a rule the severity of the treatment does not arouse any lasting resentment in those who undergo it, though there have been notable exceptions. It is “traditional” that Zen monks should have a very hard time: Bodhidharma, who brought the tradition from India to China, refused to take on his first disciple till the latter had stood waist-deep in snow for a long time, and finally in desperation cut off his arm as a token of sincerity. One young monk said to the present writer: “It is a very hard time for me now; but if I want to be a good man I must go through with it. If I cannot face this now, how shall I face death when it comes? They are all good people in these training monasteries; all the bad people go away in the first week!”

From the side of the teachers, their point of view is, that it is absolutely necessary that the aspirants prove to themselves whether they want to do Zen or not. Once they pass through the first week, they hardly ever have doubts as to whether this is really what they want to do in life or not; they don’t have to keep on reinforcing their first decision.
A few people from outside the temple are accepted as pupils by some (but not all) training teachers. They do not have to go through the full first week in the garden and bare room. On the other hand most of them find that the sudden transition to the
early hours, poor food, and unheated cold of an outhouse makes it too hard to live in the temple, so they come in each day for an interview with the Roshi.

It is a central point in Zen that spiritual realization must be reflected in the everyday things of life. While it is confined to meditation periods, or to a holy ceremony, it has very little value; in fact there is often a reaction as the mind comes down with a rush. Stress is laid on performing the daily chores of the temple-sweeping, cleaning, polishing, in a state of non-action. This is to mean that the actor, the doer, disappears in the action-there is no doer, but simply the action. It does not mean a separate observer, as a man might watch his body shivering; it means that there is no individual self-the Buddha-nature manifests directly as walking, sweeping, eating, cleaning, without mediation of some observing or reacting individual. This means performing the actions with a love of them; there is a oneness of self-Tadatmyata is the Vedanta word-between the chopper of wood and the wood. When this happens, the actions accord with the nature of the object; there is no waste movement and no fuss.

There are certain Zen principles which have to be learnt through action. One such principle is: “the way is, not pickingand choosing”. In practice this means that when the monks are coming into a hall for a lecture or sermon, for instance, they do not pick where they will sit. The first ones go to the front row in the place farthest from the door, and the others follow on, so that the place gradually fills up. If there were only six in a large hall, those six would be sitting together at the right-hand end of the front row. The effect is that those who come later do not have to pass by people already seated, but can take their place with no difficulty.
Another rule is, “sit down carefully, but once sitting, do not move”. They calculate how much space to leave for the next man; if a lane has to be left, they leave it. But once seated, they do not shift.

If for any reason a later comer has to pass to the front, he picks his way between the seated figures carefully, as he would round furniture. Consequently this sort of passage makes no unnecessary noise, as it would if they were to “make way” for him.
If the room becomes full, the later arrivals simply stand motionless round the walls. The first comers are not expected to make a place for them; even if the one standing is very senior,
he does not mind at all standing in the natural course of events. If he is very old, then at the first occasion when the whole room rises, one of the younger monks quietly exchanges places with the elder.

The general effect of Zen monks arriving is like snow falling. Snow flakes do not press hard on each other, yet they fill all the available space, and they come silently.
Another principle is “reverence”. One object of reverence is the meditation cushion. Though the meditator may touch it with his foot when he is sitting on it, he would never push it into place with his foot. (All over the East, to push something with one’s foot is extremely insulting.) Nor would he ever drop it on the ground. In many training temples, after a meditation session they rise and bow to the meditation place, namely the cushion and the ground under it, which is the “place of realization”.

Reverence for a thing also means to respect its role. A door is shut quietly, because the role of the door is not to make a noise. On the other hand when a bell is rung or a drum sounded, it is generally sounded to its full capacity, because that is the role of the bell or drum.
Spontaneity is an important matter in Zen. If something goes wrong, or appears to go wrong, they must use it as an occasion for spiritual progress. An important formal exercise in this is that a visitor is invited to drink a cup of tea just as it reaches his lips, his elbow is jogged (in the good old days they sometimes smashed the cup with a stick) so that he cannot drink the tea after all. If he retains his inner composure, it is a manifestation of Zen spirit. If there is a meeting and one monk has a part to play in it, but on account of an accident cannot come, they would not be put out at all; if the reading were announced, and there were no reading, they would composedly sit in silence till the next announcement.

If during summer meditation there is a storm and one of the light windows is blown in by a sudden gust of wind (as can happen), the monk on whom it is blown would not move. He would sit doing his meditation. If the meditation period had a monitor, he might or might not quietly move across and stand the window against the wall; but the monk would never break his meditation to do it himself. The monitor would not be breaking his meditation, because the subject of his samadhi during that period would be the meditation hall and what happens in it.

Experienced teachers say that this life produces in most people at the beginning a tremendous inner irritation, once the enthusiasm and “dedication” of the first few weeks has worn off. One method of pacifying the inner tension is by artistic creation. Many of the masterpieces of Far Eastern art are Buddhist in inspiration, but artistic creation need not depend on technique. Zen monks learn a stylized representation of Kannon, the feminine aspect of the Bodhisattva of compassion, which can be made in ten strokes, and executed in a few seconds. They draw a few of these before going to bed in the evenings, and when done in a spirit of absorption in the Bodhisattva, they produce a deep inner serenity. Similarly the head of Bodhidharma, the founder of the sect, can be depicted very simply. Many Buddhists especially in the Shingon sect, do some of their devotion by writing Sanskrit letters which are mantras, such as om and Hum. In Zen they often write the Chinese character for “NoT”-which corresponds to the Sanskrit “Neti Neti”-in twelve strokes of the brush. A man who has done this for some months becomes able to express a wonderful life through this one character, and a “NOT” by Hakuin is a famous masterpiece of calligraphy.

The periods of irritation (they can come up much later on, too) are known and watched for, and the pupils are warned about them. They can also be relieved by physical work and it is a rule in Zen that meditation must be balanced by rhythmical and satisfying physical work. One of the things that surprises Japanese monks who visit India is that in some of the Indian ashrams, Buddhist and yogic, not everyone takes part in the work of the place. On the other hand, no one is allowed to buy his way forward in Zen, either by gifts or money or by service. The temples are kept very neat and beautiful, but someone who tries to make this his special contribution gets an unexpected response.
An illustration is, that when a temple roof began to leak, the teacher who discovered it did nothing, but waited. Two monks came past, one of them strong on efficient service. The teacher said, “Quick, the rain is coming in and spoiling one of the mats!” The aforesaid monk ran off and after a little while came back with a bucket “We can catch it in this and repair the roof when the shower is over,” he puffed. But to his amazement the other monk, and the teacher, were smiling with satisfaction at a straw basket which the monk had grabbed up and put under the leak, though quite unsuited to the purpose.

This sort of riddle a Zen man is expected to ponder and solve in his spiritual experience. It does not mean neglecting the temple. But it means that ultimately there is a sort of carelessness as to what may happen, an independence of the worries and anxieties of preservation and conservation. The freedom from anxiety must apply to the life itself; he cannot be careless
Kannon on a Dragon by Hokusai
with the temple property while he hoards his own health or individuality or his fife. There is a riddling couplet: “Outwardly never departing from the rules, yet inwardly careless and free;
Outwardly very careless and free, yet inwardly never departing from the rules.”
This has to be expressed in action, not in theory. But the sort of understanding they have of it would be that a Zen practiser would keep the rules and traditions of his school very carefully, yet he would not be worried or burdened by them; the second line means that he lives a life of extreme simplicity and absence of needless and meaningless ceremonial, yet inwardly he never swerves from his realization.

Japanese monks would not however be very satisfied with this kind of theoretical explanation of their sayings. They always require concrete instances. So it would express itself like this
A man trained in a good temple would never step over a meditation cushion, nor would he ever leave the monks’ quarters without a full prostration at the gate; yet if one day he had to step over a meditation cushion or had to come running out, it would not worry him a bit. He would not pretend not to step over it, or make a truncated bow in lieu of the proper fulllength prostration. He is supposed to be preparing for the day when he may have to flout the conventions of society even at the cost of his life; when he will have followed conventions outwardly yet kept himself free inwardly, so that when he needs to, he is ready to break all outer relations and dependencies and even laws, in order not to swerve inwardly from the Dharma which is the greatest law.

In 1940 when the militarist government required all Buddhist temples to put themselves under a measure of Government control, the abbot of So ji ji, one of the greatest training temples of Zen, protested, and when his protest was ignored simply walked out of the temple and disappeared. He had no attachment at all to the great honours and dignities of his position.

Zen is becoming a fashion in Japan today, and Zen groups are springing up everywhere in attestation to the spiritual vacuum in Japan at present. Many young people are interested in Zen, though they find some of the incomprehensible Chinese diction and Sutras rather trying. Some of the temples have made innovations to suit the “modern age”, though the traditional
training temples keep on in the same way. There is a debate between those who would “adapt” Zen methods to the modern spirit, and those who say that the modern spirit must be adapted to Zen.
There is no doubt that the great interest shown by Westerners, and especially Americans, has made many Japanese feel that they may have been missing something valuable in their own tradition. In Zen this is called, in the words of a famous riddle: “A man facing the south who sees the Pole Star”.

© Trevor Leggett