Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 2.

Soon we were taken around and told the rules, manners and how tos of the toilet, washing area, zendo and hallway. In Soto Zen monasteries everyday tasks and choirs are considered sacred. Each time we passed the zendo we were to bow in gassho. We were to walk everywhere in shashu and greet everyone with gassho as we passed them or met them. Outside the toilet and senmenjo we were to bow in gassho to a statue of a bodhisattva (Baddabara I think). On entering the toilet we were to remove the lower part of our clothing, the hakama, fold it in a certain way and hang it over a wooden rail, then remove our slippers, place them in a certain way under our hakama and then enter the toilet, using the slippers provided.

It wasn't hard to find myself in a bit of a tizzy with all of the rules and conventions, but that was only the start of it. After that, we were lead back to the zendo for our first sitting. Each person had an alloted place on the tan, with our names painted in white on vertical, black, plaques of wood. I was placed along the end wall with only one person sitting beside me. Men and women were seperated and we sat at opposite ends of the zendo. Just a couple of feet from my place was an open window and I got a glimpse out of it to look down into the courtyard and at the main gate. We then mounted the tan, settled onto our zafus and began our first sitting in Eihieji.

It was hard to focus on my breath and still my mind, given the fact that after some months of waiting I was finally sitting zazen in Dogen's Eiheiji. With my eyes settled on the brown, varnished, wooden board in front of me I listened to the sounds of the place. Set in the mountains as it is, there is virtually no traffic, save that of the hamlet beyond the gates, too far off for us to hear it. There was only the multitude of shrill, insect noises from the ancient forest and the gurgling river into which Dogen had reputedly dipped a ladle and preached a sermon to the water he had taken, before returning it to the stream. This was the sound I would listen to often over the next few days, and try to forget, as I'd attempt to shed off mind and body.

I had heard so much in the short period of time before the sitting that I was afraid of forgetting something and earning a reprimand from the monks, so I ran over the instruction were were given to the best of my ability. I was aware even then that I wanted to impress them, and I was aware that such thoughts were a nonsense. Still, I was a foreigner, and whilst not the first to attend a sesshin in Eiheiji, I was probably the first that any of the monks overseeing that sesshin had encountered. I wanted their experience of dealing with a foreigner to be a good one, for their sake and for the sake of those foreigners who'd come after me.

In Eiheiji each period of zazen lasts for forty minutes. For us, it was followed by a twenty minute period of kinhin and then another forty minute period of zazen. When this was finished, Nishida-san told us that we could go around the zendo and find a zafu which best suited out needs. The zafu I was using was far too soft and was causing my legs (knees especially) to stretch beyond their normal amount when I sit at home. My own zafu is firm and tall, so I sought out one similar and found one as close to that as possible. When I sit each Sunday morning at my local temple, it's for forty minutes and I usually find my legs getting pretty sore by the end of that. After the two forty minute periods, I was feeling it for sure. But I had no idea what was to come. No idea at all.......


  1. Very cool experience you're having over there.

  2. Thanks Adam, but I've come to realise that it's all for nowt if I buy into the event of it all, if I wear it like a boy scout's badge. If it doesn't result in some peace between these two ears then my time in Eiheiji was just tourism.