By Andrew Peers
Asked to sum up Japan in one word in the plane on the way home, I said: fierce.
I had just spent the best part of a month in three different Japanese Zen temples as a member of a team of monks and nuns selected from Western monasteries. Perhaps this spontaneous answer bubbled up out of the intuition that a people naturally take on some of the qualities of the environment in which they live.
The Japanese are an island people and have long been exposed to the fierceness of nature in those regions, whether in the form of typhoons, heat-waves, or biting insects. For many years the islands were completely closed to the outside world. There have been many fierce civil wars and punishments for transgressions or loss of face even in civil matters could also said to be ‘fierce’ and uncompromising.
The strictly hierarchical form of order and government that has developed out of this pressure-cooker history comes with its own strong sense of honour and rules of behaviour. I may be wrong, but participating in this 10th East-West Spiritual Exchange, I feel privileged to taste something of the rich culture of Old Japan by briefly sharing the traditional Zen training as it is practiced today in modern Japan.
There were of course many things to get used to on arrival. So many in fact that I confess to quite a lot of initial resistance, not to mention sudden feelings of indignation. One of the first things you must do on arrival in the monastery is take off your watch. Which day of the week it is, is no longer important, certainly not Sunday.
A distinct lack of seating facilities produced serious pain in the legs before even the first day was over. There was much bowing for no discernible reason, the weather was often energy-sappingly humid, and the dreaded pickled plum for breakfast will certainly stay etched in my memory for many reincarnations yet, no matter what I come back as.
Ko-sesshin, for example, at the Rinzai temple of Shogen-ji (one of Japan’s three infamous oni-sodo’s or ‘devil monasteries’) meant nine hours of work a day. Chopping logs, weeding, making brooms one afternoon, sweeping and cleaning the next, it was all recognisably monastic and Trappist in nature. There is nothing written down, you learn the hard way, by experience and through the body, including blows to your person.
Yet by working side by side with monks nearly half my age and sweating like them in the humid conditions, we were able to gradually discover each other’s ordinary amiability and humanity—something that surely ought to lie at the heart of all religious and particularly monastic spirituality (spirituality understood here as one among many given ways of becoming your true self). Although the discipline was for me sometimes difficult and rude, it was this warm and more hidden communal sub-culture of Zen practice, behind the official mask of samurai severity, which surprised and left the most lasting impression.
The monks themselves seem to be able to move much more fluidly in and out of these two changing faces of Zen. They were natural and moved with their whole body. This is something that we western monks can learn from.
In Zen there is much less fear of expressing the full spectrum of emotions, including the darker ones. These are however meant to be expressed only in the name of compassion, which does pre-suppose a certain degree of spiritual/affective maturity. The question then arises: can such a strictly hierarchical system really help engender and foster this maturity if it is not already present or does it just hold people back in infantilism, as was not infrequently the case in many strict Trappist houses 50 years ago?
Just following the rules is never enough.
With the Roshi in a somewhat lonely and isolated position at the top of the pyramid, I must admit to being both impressed by his authority and somewhat surprised by the apparently purely spiritual and non-pastoral approach to his monks. This is very different to the Rule of St. Benedict where the abbot should be ‘more loved than feared,’ where he is obliged to consult with his council in major decisions and must be pastorally interested in the general welfare of his charges (and this in respect to ‘the whole person’ and not just his/her spiritual state).
In this respect, I feel that the ideal of western monastic community and its concern for each member’s individual growth, also has something wise and valuable to say to our Zen brothers and sisters.
Both the Zen and the Christian forms of monastic training, whether for a short time or as a way of life, are having a hard time these days gaining recruits. The modern young Japanese or western person has grown up in a micro-chip era of great changes, and has now developed other skills and qualities, differing significantly with his forefathers. Adaptations on the part of western monasteries are already taking place. Perhaps any future changes in the Zen world can at least be partially plotted by looking at the progress of western communities already functioning in Europe and America. A minimal psychological discernment or screening of candidates would seem prudent.
The strength of Zen is to push people beyond their small self to break through to infinite openness—to live the here and now in this non-duality. Meditation techniques and use of the koan in training therefore have much to offer us Christians.
Christian monasticism is strong in the art of living stability in community, denying the self in a more dosed and horizontal way, so to speak.
Discernment and moral guidelines fill in gaps that the directness of Zen can leave by the wayside. The insight that I brought back with me from Japan is that there seem to be many authentic possibilities of mutual enrichment, especially in the area of prayer, if we just keep working together, seeking the truth together in a sense of shared brother/sisterhood.
I should say here that there was absolutely no ‘fierceness’ in the hospitality we were privileged to enjoy, or if there was a little here or there, it was always on the part of over-enthusiastic western Zen monks. Everywhere we went in Japan, we were treated with great respect and unassuming and attentive kindness, especially by Toga-san, chief of the Tenryu-ji complex, who even invited us all one evening into his home for a delicious farewell party, western style!
The beauty of the wooden and somewhat fragile looking Japanese temple buildings spoke to me continually of the Buddha’s teaching about the transience of all things and begged the question “What is it then that lasts?” Surely the only answer is the love that motivated these islanders to build them in the first place, to live in them and to die in them in the hope that this love would set fire to the hearts of future generations and so continue these received traditions for the good of all the world.
This same Zen flame of love touched me too.
Everything seemed to be summed up and beautifully symbolized in the last unexpected gesture of the monk in charge of discipline in the zendo (the jikijitsu) at Shogen-ji. At the end of the ko-sesshin, he came to where myself and bro. Martin were sitting to give us both in turn three powerful whacks with the keisaku (‘the encouraging stick’) on each shoulder, something that has never been done before with visitors to this monastery, we were later told.
We received the encouragement gratefully and proudly at that time, as a sign of intimacy and acceptance into the sangha, and as a precious farewell gift that I shall always remember.
Editor: Dana Gornall