When I first arrived, the head monk greeted me and told me to sit down and have some tea.
“Knowledge is action, do you understand?”
“Sometimes people keep asking why we do this, why we put our chopsticks on the table at this angle, why we sit like this. But just do as I do. Bow over here, bow over here, sit in seiza like this, ok?”
After, I met Sho-san, a 27 year old monk who has been staying at this temple for four years now.
“Eto… follow me, I will show you your temple job.”
My temple job would be chopping firewood, burning it to heat up the bath, and cleaning the bath. He showed me how to cut and burn the wood, then gave me a tour around the temple. There was a distinct smell of tatami mats, and the temple looked like it was straight out of a stock photo, with sliding screens that opened to beautiful trees and scenery.
After the tour, we had tea time where I got to learn more about Sho-san. He was from Hiroshima and was a university student until he decided to come to Fumonken to practice Zen. He was covered in sweat from sweeping the temple grounds and had a serious yet happy expression resting on his face. He asked me a lot about America as we enjoyed the tea.
At dinner, I met two other people staying at the temple – Clara (born in France), and Eh-san (finished high school 2 years ago and came to live in the temple). There were a lot of rules when eating dinner: we had to eat three chopstick-fulls worth of rice before we could eat anything else, scoop every dish two times, use a pickle to wash our bowls, and eat three rounds of food with everybody. What surprised me was that everybody ate extremely fast, I had to rush to keep up with them. After about 10 minutes, my legs started to feel numb from sitting in seiza, but we had around 20 minutes left. I was trying to shift my weight to relieve the pain in my legs, and they laughed, saying that I would eventually get the hang of it.
During tea time after dinner, the head monk and I talked a lot about Eastern vs Western ideas.
“The West is concerned with obtaining knowledge: there is a self, and an object. 自 (self), and 他 (other). The West also has 理想 (ideals), that is why many go to universities to study.”
“The East is concerned with 本來 (the natural, original) . There is no dualism in the world. When you chop wood, you first think that the axe is an object outside yourself. But there is no separation, when you keep cutting wood, the axe and you are the same thing.”
“無 (not/non-), if you keep practicing zen, you will get to the point where you accept everything as it is and do not care. But this is not the goal, there is no goal. If there is a goal, that means there is a start. But this is dualistic. It is like 道 (in Taoism, process).”
I was trying to teach back to him to try to understand it better myself. “Let’s keep talking, the more we talk, the more I am starting to understand.”
“Yes, knowledge is action.”
Then he told me more examples and stories before we took our baths and got ready for zazen. This was definitely the most painful part of the night. We had three consecutive 30-minute sessions with about a 30 second stretch break in between each session. We do zazen with our eyes open, because if we close our eyes we become too focused with ourselves. Sitting in hankahuza (half-lotus), there was alternating pains in each leg, and that wasn’t the best feeling in the world.
The next morning, we woke up at 4 AM to sweep the outer and inner temple grounds. Then after breakfast, we had tea time where I learned about Eh-san’s history. He was 20 years old, and was failing high school because he was playing too much Puzzles and Dragons (smartphone game) and watching too much Youtube. He called himself a NEET (Not Employed Educated Training). The principal told his mother that he would not graduate, so then she set Eh-san to a temple to discipline himself. Eh-san had to give up playing games and told me about how the most important part of zen was standing/bearing the pain in zazen.
“When I first started Zazen, it was very very very painful. But you have to stand it! Stand, stand stand. Don’t mind, don’t mind, don’t mind. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. Here I am 2 years.”
He thinks his mother started to regret sending him to a temple because Eh-san decided to start living at the temple.
“I realized that I needed this to get out of the ‘hell’ I was in.”
“When I ran out of stamina in Puzzles and Dragons, I would watch Youtube, when I was done watching YouTube, I would go chat. Puzzles and Dragons, Youtube, Chatting, it was a cycle.”
Damn, this reminded me a lot of the time when I used to play a lot of League of Legends.
Well, I did not expected the monastery to be like this, it was a lot more intense than I imagined. It was only the first day, and my legs are pretty sore already. These next ten days will be long.