mumonkan: life in a zen buddhist monastery

words & images dandan liu

I have officially entered the monastery: I am now living in a small Zen Buddhist temple in Obama, a small seaside town in the Fukui prefecture. Here, the locals revere two figures: the Buddha and Barack Obama. Bobbleheads of our American president line the window-sills of the quirky shops and restaurants of the two streets comprising “downtown.”

Buddhist monasteries and Shinto shrines dot the town’s periphery, nestled within the mountains. It is autumn, so the mountains are starting to turn colors—auburns, crimsons, and golds. Within these mountains, monkeys find their home, frequently coming down to the monasteries to steal the Buddha’s offerings at the altar.

I now belong to a family of seven old monks and live in a little temple that was built in 1508. (The monks like to proclaim that it is even older than America.) Sometimes, I feel like I am Snow White living with seven dwarfs. There's Genshu, Genpo, Ryoko, Kogen, Kogak, Dharma, and Dojo san, and each monk seems to have his own particular personality trait—One is even always sleepy!

During our meditation sessions, the sleepy monk usually gets whacked with a wooden stick by the assigned sleep patrol of the day. Often, the sleep patrol is Genpo san, a Polish monk who towers over the other monks by three feet. Apart from their unique personality traits, all of the monks exude a special sweetness, a childlike sensibility, which creates a lighthearted atmosphere in a place dedicated to serious practice and tradition.

My days begin at 3:50 am, when the senior monk rushes through the old, wooden hallways, ringing a bell. Once a week, during bath days, I get to sleep in and wake up at 4:50 am. We have now begun the training period for the winter Rohatsu session, the most intense time of training during the year. Since it gets cold—really cold—outside, the monks do nothing but eat, sleep, and sit, barefoot, until the winter thaw.

So I, too, sit on my round, black zafu cushion, facing the wall, focusing on my breathing, breath by breath. For such a simple act, it is surprisingly difficult to do. Often, I find my mind wandering around, thinking about the future and trying to devise a concrete plan. Once, at four in the morning, I even found myself daydreaming about powdered sugar doughnuts—the cheap kind wrapped in cellophane and sold at gas stations. I am now learning how wild and ridiculous the mind can be, how it is always grasping for answers and, even now, for certainty, and devising the silliest distractions to keep me from living in the beautiful present—where life takes place.

Besides meditation, my days revolve around chanting and samu, or daily work. Most of the time, samu comprises of cleaning, weeding, or koronaoshi, sifting through small pots of incense and flattening the ash down with delicate tools. Although these acts sound mundane, they are not chores. Rather, they are a form of Zen practice, to be done as mindfully as possible.

For instance, weeding is not the typical yank and pull or herbicide spray. Rather, it’s picking each small shoot of clover one by one and feeling the snip-snap of the roots loosening beneath the pebbles. It's hearing the soft tuh-tuh-tuh of the roots breaking through the earth. Cleaning is not the quick vacuum or thoughtless Swiffer wipe. Rather, it’s feeling each stroke of the broom sweep against the stone path, each stroke made with intention.

In between morning and afternoon samu, I usually have a few breaks where I can go hiking through the mountains or biking to the sea. Sometimes, I just chill over tea with the monks. The other day, I asked Genshu san, who has been a monk for over twenty years, and is now my best friend, “Do you know who Kate Middleton is?”

He responded, “Who?”

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