Monday, 2 November 2009

Report from the Eiheiji sesshin, Part 4. Evening Service.

After eating we went back to our bedroom, drank tea and waited for the monks to return to take us to evening service. Again, I sat alone. As a matter of fact, no-one really spoke to each other at all, apart from a few mild greetings, a gassho at the tea urn, a nod when sitting down close to another. There were no chairs in the room so we had to sit on the floor. It was clear that people were already starting to feel the pain the their legs, and this was not even the end of the first day. Some were stretching whilst others were rubbing their knees and flexing their joints. Already I was starting to feel a burning in my knees. Sitting for eating was tough, after two periods of zazen as well, but I knew the scariest bit was to come; evening service and at least an hour of seiza.

Two young monks arrived and we were led out in to the hall and asked to line up where we were joined by the women. Nishida-san wasn't there, but a new young monk came along and gave us directions in Japanese, none of which I understood. Sakae-san was about twenty-six years old or so. Stocky, with bushy eyebrows and an expressionless face, he delivered instructions in a very deadpan fashion, with the shadows of his eyebrows making him seem a little stern. People started to form a two-by-two line behind the monks so I fell in with them and off we went making our way through the labyrinth of corridors and halls which make up Eiheiji.

Already it was getting dark outside and the tourists had gone, leaving the reception hall dimly lit and a little desolate. Behind the long desk at the far side of the room several young monks busied themselves with administrative work as we passed. Soon we were out of the visitors' building and into the actual temple complex itself. It's difficult to describe the beauty of the place, the long wooden corridors, partially open to the outside, connecting the large, ornate, wooden buildings which rise up with the mountain and enclose numerous little gardens, beautifully kept enclosures of moss, stone, water and low shrubs. All of this surrounded by ancient, pine forests of trees standing tens of metres high and the mountains rising to meet the skies. As we walked through the temple grounds there was silence save the sound of our bare feet on the wooden boards and a soft wind cooling us on the late summer evening. As we passed the Chukamon gate we stopped and bowed in gassho to the Butsuden (Bhudda Hall) which stood over us up a flight of outdoor stone steps, and then along the end of a corridor, turning left to the Daikuen (kitchen) and further on to a flight of around one hundred stairs rising up the mountainside to the Hatto (The Dharma Hall, pictured above), where morning, midday and evening services are held.

Inside the Hatto some monks were already in place, kneeling side by side from the front to the back of the large room. Judging by their placement and the colour of their robes they were not novices. We were directed to kneel along the back of the room, facing the front and the swelling number of monks. The Hatto is one of the largest, if not the largest, room in the temple complex. It's like most other old Japanese temples on the face of it, except for its size. Measured in tatami (as Japanese rooms are) it is certainly over 100 in size, maybe quite a bit more. Around us, unseen, drums and bells were being struck, calling monks from all over the temple for service.

Soon, over to the left of the hall, a mass of black robed, young monks came streaming through a side door. The novices, from only a few weeks to a year, in the toughest part of their training, filed in before us and took their places right in front of were we knelt. I was facinated by them. Many of them were barely out of boyhood, yet they looked so much older, or more matured, given their robes and black rimmed glasses (regulation in Eiheiji. Gucci wouldn't get a look-in). Their faces were weighed down with the labour of carrying out the rigorous drills of Eiheiji life. Barely moving they knelt in seiza, staring in front of themselves, in solemn uniform.

Sakae-san briefly knelt before us and gave initial instructions about what to do. What I could make out was enough. That was, "Watch us and do exactly what we do". I forgot to mention that earlier in the day, we had been given a two sutra books each and told which sutras we would recite that evening. They were kind enough to supply us with sticky yellow paper tabs with which we could mark the pages in the book and mark them off, 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. The books are written in Chinese script, but they have above each character a simpler, Japanese script called Hiragana, which I could read, so, although the meaning of the sutras were beyond me, I could at least try to read along with everyone.

After only ten minutes in the room, and with the service not even having started, my legs were already starting to hurt terribly. Osan, the monk at my local temple, and the other good people who attend my weekly zazenkai, offered me copious amounts of advice on how to survive an hour of seiza, but I didn't expect to be dipping into it at such an early stage. So, I bit my lip and endured it, trying to keep my mind off the pain by watching procedings and keeping up with everyone else.

Soon the service started and, thankfully, we were on our feet to greet the Abbot as he and his attendants came into the Hall from a door just to our right. He was preceded by a monk carrying a small, upwardly pointing bell mounted on a short wooden handle which he would strike with a rather flambouyant swooping gesture of his other hand. The Abbot was dressed in full ceremonial dress which included a pointed hat, awfully reminiscent if those worn by Grand Wizards of the KKK and a short staff of wood, topped with what looked like a wafting bush of horse hair, similar to those you would see carried by various African dignitaries.

When he took his place we knelt again and the chanting began. For a short while I forgot the pain in my legs as the sound of a hundred monks chanting filled the room with a harmony like I'd never heard before. In it's fullness it is like the wood that forms the temple buildings, dark, rich and aged. It is a deep, bass hum, rising and falling only slightly, that can be felt in the floor under your knees and in your very torso. It is mesmerising in its depth. Three times a day such services are held so it's not hard to understand how the monks get to learn such a large amount of text for chanting and then recite it as second nature. I could see some of the novices using sutra books intermittently throughout the service as they struggled in the early stages of their training to learn the scripts. I was amused to watch a monk by the main altar hitting on a mukyugo so large the baton he was using to hit it needed to be tucked up under one oxter and wielded with both hands.

After 30 minutes of chanting the pain in my legs was becoming unbearable. Osan had told me that it would be possible to straighten my feet up under my backside and have my toes rest on the tatami, as if I was kneeling normally, and keep it hidden from the monks because I'd be wearing robes. I'd just have to make the manouevre unseen. I managed that, but very soon my toes were aching, so I went back to seiza. He had also showed me a techique of shifting my weight from one leg to another, but I soon realised that I was just swapping one kind of pain for another. Initially, it was a new pain, so something of a relief, but then familiarity quickly bred contempt and I'd switch position again. Soon, I could barely hold my sutra book, my body was shaking so badly. I bent forward a bit and lifted by backside off my legs and felt a little better, but immediately a young monk was at my side asking me to return to seiza. "But it really hurts", I said in Japanese.
"You must do it", he replied.
"Can I sit normally, on my backside for a few minutes. The pain is really bad."
"Sorry, you must do it", he said again, with a sterness that ended the conversation.

Immediately I thought of the novices and what some of them must go through in the early days of their training. Many of them are from temple families so they are familar with the sutras and sitting in seiza, but others are not. There are those who marry into a temple family with no son to inherit the temple. It falls on them to go to monasteries to take the training and then become temple monks, for their sons then to follow. Many of them hate it, hate even the thought of it, but in this society duty is taken seriously, so off they go, with straw sandals, robes and wicker backpacks, with no interest at all in Bhuddism, to bang on the gates of Eihieji to ask permission to enter to endure at least a year of rigourous discipline, malnourishment, sleep deprivation and, sometimes, physical assault at the hands of senior monks. Free will is stripped from them. Every movement they make is prescribed. Everything they own, eat and do must be allowed, learned, followed until there is no thought necessary beyond the bare basics of getting from there to here in the present moment. The ego is pummelled until it is considered useless, surplus to requirements by its owner and is willfully cast aside. And with all of this in mind the fierce burning in my knees became a little more endurable.

After a few minutes, the chanting stopped and everyone stood up. I stood as best I could, but I was slow to get up and I thought my legs wouldn't hold me. Then something bloody awful happened. The novice monks took large, black napkins from inside their robes and spread them on the ground at their feet. Then they dropped to their knees, placing their foreheads and elbows on the mat and raising their hands, palms up, to be level with their ears. We also had to do this. Three times this was done in quick succession and if anyone had have been watching me from behind they might have fallen into a fit of laughter. My legs were all but seized up. I could barely bend or straighten them, yet there I was dropping like a brick to the floor and thumping my head off the mat, propelling myself onto my feet again with my hands, getting tangled in my robes, then dropping again, and so on. My ego was taking a pummelling there for sure. But I did what was asked of me and that was that. Within a few minutes everyone was on their feet and people were leaving the Hall. The novice monks were first to go and it seemed that we would be the last. Slowly the pain pain in my legs subsided and one of my fellow retreatees asked me quietly, "Daijoubou desu ka? (Are you OK?).
"I am", I replied. To be honest, I was elated to be on my feet again and about to walk back through the temple grounds. Sakae-san (who had been behind me the whole time) gestured to us to leave and off we went, back into the cool night for evening zazen and bed by half past nine.

To be continued.


  1. Wow, these stories are great! Looking forward to read some more!

    Have you ever read "Eat Sleep Sit -
    My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple" by Nonomura, Kaoru? I haven't read it but I would definitely like to read it someday when I have some more time. But what I have read little parts from it, yours experiences seems to be quite similar.

    Thank you for these posts, truly wonderful to read and feel!

  2. Yes, I read it about a year ago. This made the visit there all the more interesting. I had been there once before for an afternoon tourist visit. I walked around the main buildings, learning a bit about the history of the place and such, but not much about the monks' daily lives, or even about the teachings (my Japanese is not good and no translations are given in English). After that I read Nonomura's book and was determined to return for a sesshin. If I wasn't married with kids, I'd study Japanese harder and seek to enter as a novice, but that is not possible for me.

    It's a good book, but we have to ask about the violence towards novices. Unfortunately, it is the same sort of disciplinary violence that existed in many western societies before and which continues still in places. I don't think it has any value, for the victim or the perpetrator. It demeans Buddhism.

    However, Eiheiji and the sesshins held there present an extraordinary opportunity for lay practitioners to learn the skills of daily practice. I intend to return every year.