Friday, 11 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 1.

The sesshin in Eiheiji finished on Sunday, and my legs are still buggered. I meant to post a little earlier, but I kind of slumped this week after coming home. Certainly, Monday and Tuesday were recovery time, catching up on sleep and getting my body clock back on normal time. The rest of the week was a bit of a meander to be honest with not a lot constructive done. Anyroads, here's the beginning of a run-down on the sesshin. It'll have to come in installments as there is just so much to tell. It was truly an extraordinary experience, one I intend to make an annual event.

Eiheji is quite close to my house, about two and a half hours drive or three hours by train. I took the train from Nagoya to Fukui and then a local, two carriage train from Fukui to Fukui-guchi. From there I took a small, ancient bus up into the mountains which left me off outside the gates of the monastery. There is a small village outside Eiheiji, just a couple of streets really, or one street which runs up to the gates, swings right and back down the other side, like a horse-shoe. The side which leads up to the gates is lined with souvenir shops and tacky eateries. It being a Thursday afternoon, there weren't many tourists about and place was quite sleepy. I had read the schedule and knew that I'd eat only once more that day and not see another morsel for fourteen hours after that, so I walked about half way down the street looking for somewhere to eat. Eiheiji, like everywhere else in Japan, has a local speciality food. Actually, it has two, miso and soba noodles (made from buckwheat flour). I settled for a bowl of steaming hot soba with vegetables and mushrooms, just right to fill me for what I knew would be a very busy afternoon.

I walked up the path to the temple, under towering cedars and along a small, fast-flowing mountain river. The temple complex sits high up on the right of the path and is obviously very big. It's built on the side of a mountain so it rises quite considerably from the front gate to the Founders Hall at the back. I went into the visitors building, checked in and was directed to a waiting area in the foyer where I met my fellow participants. They were shocked to see a foreigner join the group and I found myself in the splendid isolation I so craved to begin with. Not one of them would speak to me for at least another day. It's true to say that people here to tend to be quite shy at first and also that English is not so widely spoken, which itself scares people off from foreigners. Soon we were met by a young monk who led us up several flights of stairs to the floor on which we would spend the next four days.

There were sixteen of us in all, nine men and seven women, with a wide range of ages indeed. The youngest were two university students, a man and a woman and the eldest would have been a man in his 70s. It also seemed that there was a wide mix of motives for attending. There was a man and a woman who were old-hands at Eiheiji sesshins, whose job it was to give us some guidance. The woman wore a rakusa and samue and was obviously an experienced practitioner. The man had attended nine sesshins in Eiheiji over the last four years and was also a committed Zen practitioner. The others were all first timers, many of whom had never been in a zendo or sat zazen before. They were effectively tourists, trying this whole Zen thing for a bit of an adventure. Little did they know what they had signed up for, for what followed could only be described as a Dogen Bootcamp.

We were seperated into the two rooms in which we'd sleep, large tatami rooms with oshire (built-in, sliding door, Japanese wardrobes/cupboards) in which we would find our bedding, single, thin matresses, blankets and kapoc-filled pillows which had all the softness and rest-your-weary-head-on-me charm of a brick. Directly facing the rooms was the zendo, a beautiful room with raised wooden tan around the walls and along the centre of the room separated with the altar statue of Manjushri Bodhisattva. The floor was made from large, polished, grey, stone tiles and the windows along one side looked out of the front courtyard and the river that runs along the front of the monastery. The rest of the floor of the building contained various sleeping rooms for monks, as well as toilets, a senmenjo (utility room) and a room for storing oryoki utensils.

As we were assigned to our rooms we were given our robes for the sesshin, kimono and hakama, and were asked to get changed immediately. We were also asked to hand in our wallets, watches and phones and they were put in brown envelopes and sealed. During the sesshin we were forbidden to have any contact with the outside world at all. Relatives could contact us only in case of emergency, but that was really it. Soon we were led into the zendo for some basic instruction on zendo etiquette. More on what happened with regards to scheule later.

Apart from when we were in our sleeping rooms there there were around six monks in constant attendance, more during meal times. The level of instruction and the demand that we follow instruction to the letter was typical of the Eiheiji way. We were politely corrected for every little mistake we made in everything we did, but corrected we were. The training monk in charge was a man in his late 50s - early 60s called Mr Nishida (西田さん). Serious, sharp, but very friendly he was determined that we would experience a thorough sesshin, in the Eiheiji sense of the word thorough. The other monks were second and third year trainees, mostly in their 20s. They were stoney faced and tough taskmasters, but they were impeccably polite at all times. The strictness of the training had its purpose, which we would hear about from Nishida-san the night before we would leave.

to be continued......


  1. Thanks, Zafu Frog. Looking forward to Part 2...

  2. Hi zafufrog! I would like to know when is the next sesshin in Eiheiji? and if you have a site web where i can see all sesshin there all date like summer camp! Thank you very much Gasshó