Eiheiji, the “Temple of Eternal Peace,” is one of the largest and most visited temples in Japan. Located 19 km northeast of Fukui, the elaborate complex of more than 70 buildings nestles on a hilltop amid a forest of towering cedar trees, many more than 750 years old.

Eiheiji Temple in Fukui Prefecture

Eiheiji was founded by Dogen Zenji (1200-1253) in the 13th century. Son of a Kyoto aristocrat, he was ordained as a Tendai Buddhist monk at Hieizan and later studied under the great Eisai, founder of Rinzai Zen in Japan. Subsequently he went to China and studied there for five years, achieving enlightenment under the Soto Zen master Zhangweng Rujing (1163-1228). On returning home in 1227 he championed his own brand of Buddhism, much to the chagrin of the Kyoto Buddhist establishment. Banned from preaching, he left Kyoto, and after many travels founded Eiheiji deep in the Fukui hills.

Today, Eiheiji is home to a thriving community of Zen monks. It is one of two headquarters of Soto Zen Buddhism (the other, Sojiji, is in Yokohama), which is characterized by its emphasis on silent meditation, known as shikan taza (literally “just sitting”), as opposed to Rinzai Zen’s use of koan (riddles), such as the well-known one regarding the sound of one hand clapping.

Eiheiji is one of the two main training centers for Soto Zen monks.

Both sects encourage submission to a rigorously disciplined routine to heighten the sense of significance in even the simplest everyday tasks.

The solitary Zen monk one occasionally finds in the city exemplifies this attitude. Dressed in black robes and white tabi, he stands with bowl and beads in hand, chanting under a conical straw hat. Ostensibly begging, he seems oblivious to whether or not he collects anything; it is the act in itself that is important.

That said, Eiheiji manages to be both a monastic retreat and a thriving tourist business. Visitors file past the ticket vending machines that line the entrance and, carrying their shoes in the plastic bags provided, stream into the main hall bustling with monks busy on telephones, arranging services and selling amulets.

Grouped together at the busiest times, sightseers walk along a mostly enclosed wooden walkway that allows an all-weather tour with a good view of the main buildings, but prevents setting foot in the gardens.

To really soak up the ambience it is better to avoid the crowds. Arriving as early as possible is the best way to avoid congestion, and there is ample opportunity to do so — the temple opens at 5 a.m.

At sunrise, shafts of light cut through the mossy, green forest and illuminate the early morning mist that swirls around the waterfall and clings to the crumbling cemetery. If you look hard enough you will notice an overgrown path winding up the hillside.

A 20-minute climb will bring you to a small clearing at the top. The view down onto the temple is magnificent. The placement of Eiheiji’s seven main buildings follows the pattern used in Chinese Zen temples of the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

The superb structures provide a stunning, perhaps ironic, backdrop to the ascetic lifestyle of the monks.

The sodo (monks’ hall) is the most important and one of three places with a strict vow of silence. Here, trainees eat, sleep and meditate. The bath and toilet, similarly silent, demonstrate the Zen penchant for ritualized behavior.

Priests bathe on dates that include a four or nine. Before entering the bath, they bow three times, reciting “We bathe vowing to benefit all beings; may our bodies and minds be purified both inwardly and outwardly.” All around the temple, one sees trainee priests being coached in elaborate rituals such as this.

Kodo Sawaki, one of Japan’s best-known Zen masters and scholars, noted “Zen monasteries and the military truly resemble each other closely.” Since the Kamakura Period, Zen’s status as a moral code wedded to Bushido (the “way of the warrior”) has been well documented, yet its 20th-century equivalent is less well known.

At the beginning of the Meiji Era, Tokugawa Buddhism was disestablished in favor of emperor-centered Shintoism. Temples were burned, lands seized and priests drafted into the army. Having derived their influence from a close proximity to the leading powers of the day, this sudden loss of status made Buddhist sects eager to regain ground by proving their usefulness to the state.

Brian Victoria’s fascinating book “Zen at War” extensively documents the period. Depressingly, all the Buddhist sects became militarist cheerleaders and ideologues. Individual exceptions existed but were rare. One outspoken priest, Gudo Uchiyama, was defrocked by Soto Zen and hanged by the state.

The July 1938 statement by the chief abbot of Eiheiji, Esho Hata (1862-1944) indicates the flavor of the times. “A just war is a task of Buddhism. Likewise, achieving the capitulation of the enemy country may also be counted as the religious practice of a Buddhist,” he said.

Toward the end of the war, Fukui was completely flattened in American bombing raids. The glowing sky and columns of smoke could be seen from Eiheiji as the monks sat reciting sutras to keep the horror at bay.

In the postwar period the rigorous discipline of Zen, coupled with its emphasis on mental and physical endurance, made it attractive for corporate training programs to “instill the old traditional values,” in the words of a booklet put out by the Japan External Trade Organization.

Today Eiheiji is a serene and beautiful spot that offers a fascinating glimpse into Zen temple life. Besides full-time, cloistered monks, many laymen come for short-term Zen training sessions. One can participate as a sanrosha (religious trainee) in a two-day course, including an overnight stay, for around 7,000 yen. Reservations are required one month in advance.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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