Among the monks: Dipping a toe in Zen at Shinshoji Temple

by

Special To The Japan Times

When was the last time you sat in silence, without fretting about the things you ought to be doing or gazing at a screen of any kind? When was the last time you didn’t think anything at all?

If this is something you do regularly, you’re one of the growing legions who have discovered the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Health authorities now recognize mindfulness as an effective treatment for stress and depression, and corporate wellness programs at companies like Google, Nike and Starbucks are starting to include it. According to the late Steve Jobs, by practicing mindfulness, “Your intuition starts to blossom and … you see so much more than you could before.” In the world of the overworked, the new mantra is “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

So what exactly is mindfulness? “Simply put, mindfulness is moment-to-moment awareness,” says Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped to popularize the term as a secular synonym for meditation. And with this booming interest in mindfulness coinciding with record numbers of tourists coming to Japan, more and more visitors are seeking to explore the roots of Zen, that most-recognized form of Buddhism.

But while Japan’s tourism industry booms, its population is shrinking, leaving many Buddhist temples struggling to maintain their centuries-old way of life. In response, some temples have opened their doors, offering visitors a peek into their once-secret world. Eiheiji in Fukui Prefecture, for instance, where Steve Jobs once considered taking the tonsure, is developing its site and building a billion-dollar hotel nearby.

Shunko-in in Kyoto, where William Shatner (Captain Kirk of “Star Trek”) once dropped in for a visit, performs gay wedding ceremonies, runs educational programs and offers meditation practice.

Going one step further, Shinshoji Temple, in the forest-clad hills outside Fukuyama in Hiroshima Prefecture, has rebranded itself as Shinshoji Zen Museum and Gardens. Its aim? To make the world of Zen “fully accessible to the public for the first time ever, through all five senses.”

So what can visitors expect? Zazen (seated meditation) practice is of course on the menu. But visitors can also try Shinshoji udon noodles, eaten with five side dishes called jihatsu (a treat served to monks only on shikunichi — numbered days that end with four or nine), cleanse their minds and bodies in the bathhouse, enjoy a tea ceremony and stroll round Shinshoji’s gorgeous gardens. And all of this blissfully free of the austere monastic rigors endured by proper monks.

Just across the road, the Kohtei art pavilion houses a permanent collection of works by 18th-century monk Hakuin. This is the one who asked “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” — the famous koan, or “public case,” designed to break the shell of the rational mind and give way to sudden, intuitive insight.

The use of koan is a characteristic of the Rinzai school of Zen, to which Shinshoji belongs. The monk Eisai (1141-1215) brought Rinzai Zen teachings back from China in 1191 and is often credited as the founder of Zen in Japan.

The other main branch of the Zen tree in Japan, the Soto school, was founded by the monk Dogen (1200-1253), who also founded the Eiheiji Temple in 1244. Soto eschews koan practice, focusing chiefly on zazen.

Together, these two sects had an enormous influence on Japanese culture, from landscape gardening and the tea ceremony to the austere simplicity of its art, architecture and design.

Zen first came to Japan from China in the seventh century, but didn’t take hold until the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), when the idea that enlightenment depends entirely on one’s own efforts found favor among the nobles of the warrior elite.

It is the lure of an authentic zazen experience that has brought me to Shinshoji’s vast hillside complex. After meeting us at the pine tree-shaped Temple Office and Information Center, a guide leads our little group through the Garden of the Appreciating Heart, where koi carp bask in the Heart Character Pond, lined with maples on one side and cherry trees on the other.

The graceful wooden arch of the Dragon’s Back Bridge takes us over the lake to the International Zen Training Hall, where Shoan Osho, a priest with shaved head and wearing robes of the ubiquitous “Hiroshige Blue,” teaches us the correct way to enter the hall.

“First, please remove your shoes and socks, and put on these wooden sandals,” he says. “Then bow before and after entering the hall, with your palms together in a gesture of gratitude.”

Inside the shadowy wooden hall stand several low tatami-covered platforms. On each one thick futons have been folded to be sat on. Osho demonstrates how to clamber up backward and perch cross-legged atop a futon.

Tricky as it looks, it’s far more comfortable than you might imagine. And the arrangement of the futon makes it surprisingly easy to sit with a straight back, which facilitates abdominal breathing, a fundamental part of zazen.

“Keep your eyes half open, to avoid falling asleep,” Osho instructs. “Fix your gaze at a point about 1.5 meters in front of you. If you feel yourself dozing off, put your hands together and raise them in front of your chest. I’ll awaken you with my keisaku.”

Ah yes, the stick. I’d always imagined this keisaku business to be just a polite ceremonial prod. Imagine my surprise, then, when Osho produced a flat beam resembling an oar from a Viking longship.

“Please don’t look on it as punishment,” he reassured us. “It’s simply to help you focus.”

With that, he lights a stick of incense, strikes a small hand-held bell four times, and we begin our meditation.

Silence descends on the hall, broken only by birdsong from the trees outside. In this stillness, one becomes alert to myriad sensations: the mountain breeze blowing through the open windows, caressing your skin, the fragrance of the bare wood and incense, the gentle snore of a far-off airplane.

Through half-closed eyes I see the priest patrolling with sloth-like slowness, raising one foot, then waiting a couple of seconds before bringing it down and raising the other, keisaku at the ready.

But 15 minutes pass with no requests for a wake-up call. Just as I’m beginning to feel a bit fidgety, Osho strikes the bell. Time for a short break. “Change position if your legs are getting stiff,” he advises.

Five minutes later, he strikes the bell again to begin the second session. The sound resonates in the silence like ripples in a pond.

This time, one brave young woman soon raises her hands in supplication. Through half-closed eyes, I watch Osho shuffle toward her. They exchange bows. Everyone has stopped meditating, unable to resist watching the ritual unfold.

Thwack thwack! Thwack thwack!

The priest delivers four resounding strokes to the woman’s back, two on either side of her backbone. The rest of us audibly wince in sympathy.

Nevertheless, the others quickly follow suit and raise their hands, eager for a whacking of their own. Somehow the experience wouldn’t feel complete otherwise, like going to an onsen hot spring and not soaking in the tub. So I, too, press my palms together and await the inevitable. As I bow, I feel Osho gently pushing my back down until it’s completely straight.

Happily, the blows only sting momentarily, then leave you feeling invigorated, something like the effect of a good massage.

The second session continues for some 25 minutes, long enough to feel my mind emptying of all its usual chatter as I focus on the rise and fall of my chest with each breath. For a moment, I glimpse what it means to “get into now,” as Van Morrison calls it, uninterrupted by thought. Then the bell sounds again, signaling the end of the session.

Osho’s closing message is simple: “Every day, make sure you find a little time to devote to yourself. Even just for five minutes. Even just one minute.”

With that, he slides the wooden shutters over the windows. We bow as we leave the hall and put our shoes back on. I float out into the afternoon sunshine in an elated state, feeling alive and alert.

The priest is right. After a day trapped in an unbroken chain of multi-tasking, even a short dip in the sea of meditative tranquility can be enormously rewarding. After all, most of us aren’t after enlightenment, just a calmer life that is more in tune with ourselves and those around us.

By 2040, some 27,000 of Japan’s temples are expected to close, as the exodus to the big cities leaves rural temples with dwindling congregations. Hopefully, initiatives such as Shinshoji’s will not only help keep more temples open, but also enable more people to experience the benefits of zazen.

From Fukuyama Station on the Sanyo Shinkansen Line, take the Tomotetsu Bus from Boarding Area 6 going to Miroku no Sato. The temple is a 15-minute walk from the Tenjin Yama bus stop. Admission: adults ¥1,200; zazen sessions ¥600; all-day Zen experience: ¥4,600 (includes zazen, udon lunch, sutra copying and tea). For more information, visit shinshoji.com/english.