Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Getting my Zen on...

I was up with the sun -- and the Zen Buddhist monks -- this morning.

My alarm went off at 5 a.m. and I was out the door 30 minutes later, zipping through rice paddies and along pine-lined mountain roads, taking in the sunrise from my little car. My destination was Eihei-ji, a Zen Buddhist temple and training center for new monks that's nestled in the mountains right outside of Fukui City. It's one of only two training centers in the world for the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism.

My apartment is only about 30 minutes from Eihei-ji, but I've never properly visited the place (just once, really quickly, on a rainy day with my host mom). It's kind of like how I lived in Chicago for five years, but never made my way up to the Signature Room in the John Hancock. Sometimes, when things are so close, you take them for granted.

But I couldn't let the chance to visit Eihei-ji pass me by.

I'd called the folks at Eihei-ji a couple of weeks ago to inquire about organizing an overnight stay at the temple -- the monks occasionally allow the secular-but-curious public to experience "A Day in the Life" of a Zen Buddhist monk. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons (most of them probably stemming from my poor Japanese phone skills), the temple couldn't accommodate my visit. I was beyond disappointed, knowing that, as my time in Japan is coming to a close, I'd likely never have the chance to visit Eihei-ji again.


But a kind monk named Kuroyanagi took pity on me and offered to personally guide me through the temple and accompany me to the monks' morning services. やった!!

The only trick was that I'd have to meet him at 6 a.m.

Now, those that know me best know that I'm not a morning person. I really don't function before I've had my caffeine fix in the morning. So, to get up at 5 a.m. took some sacrifice -- and some very un-Zen guzzling of Diet Coke during my drive to the temple. But the monks at the temple are up at 3 a.m. every morning, so I really had no room to complain.

My early morning start (and the extreme post-lunch sleepiness that I experienced at school later in the day) were well worth it. Kuroyanagi proved to be an excellent host, chatting with me in perfect English about the temple, the morning service that I'd be observing later in the day, and slightly more secular topics, such as his travels to Los Angeles and his affinity for Disneyland. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: we are all more alike than we are different.

We wound our way through the halls of the temple, where robe-clad monks bowed as they hurried past us. Kuroyanagi took me to a large prayer room, where I sat on a tatami mat on the sidelines, taking in the spectacle that was the morning service. Words really can't do it justice, but I'll attempt to illustrate the scene: 100 monks chanted in unison from kanji-filled prayer books as they circled the room in single-file lines. A deep drum kept the pace. Incense filled the room, which was lit only by candles and the early-morning sun. Perhaps it was my sleepy state, but I was mesmerized, almost hypnotized, by the sound and smell. The experience was dream-like -- even as I type this, I can't recall particulars -- and before I knew it, an hour had passed. A monk motioned for me to stand, pray, and burn incense as part of the close of the service.

Energized by the experience, I hustled off to school, where I taught some very enlightened morning classes. Unfortunately, I hit a brick wall after lunch and sleepily snuck out of school over lunch recess in search of more Diet Coke. Very un-Zen.

Perhaps I'll be better able to process my Eihei-ji experience after I've slept on it, but suffice to say I'm glad I had it. 'Twas ichi-go, ichi-e, as the saying goes.

Thanks, Kuroyanagi.

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