NAGANO – Deep in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture, a German Zen Buddhist nun offers guidance to those who feel they have lost their way in life.
“Why don’t we think about what kind of life we’d be satisfied with?” Dorothee Eshin Takatsu, 62, asked to four visitors in their 20s to 60s who visited her Zen monastery in Suzaka, Nagano, one day last November.
Takatsu, who is originally from the central German city of Kassel, said she never dreamed she would pursue Buddhism in her life.
“Regardless of religion or nationality, what’s important for us is to find a life each of us can be satisfied with, and I’d like to assist in that process through Zen teachings,” she said.
More than a decade ago, Takatsu, who is married to a Buddhist priest, converted a deserted house near her husband’s temple into a monastery with the help of local carpenters.
The monastery, which has a red corrugated iron roof, was built in a woodland about 40 minutes by car from the center of the city of Nagano. Every Wednesday, Takatsu holds a meditation session there, with the sound of a stream and bird song in the background.
Junji Sakata, 58, a masseuse who was visiting the monastery for the second time, said, “Since I started this seated meditation, I have learned to be able to focus on my work and other things in my daily life.”
“I’ve seen some people who said they came here because they were curious about her, but it no longer seems to matter who she is, once they have listened to her,” Yuriko Otsuka, 64, a frequent visitor, said.
In recent years, people from other parts of the world have also been flocking to Nagano to see the nun.
About 30 years ago, Takatsu, who majored in folklore at university, met a Japanese priest from the Soto sect while studying in Japan. Subsequently, they married and now have two sons.
A major turning point in her life was an encounter with Masatoshi Takai, 69, a priest from the Rinzai sect’s Kencho Temple faction. She still calls him her “teacher.”
“He was so kind and answered all of my questions about Buddhism,” Takatsu said.
She visited him frequently and decided to become a nun. The decision came as a surprise to her husband, but “he soon smiled and accepted it,” she said.
Takatsu was given the Buddhist name Eshin by her teacher and attended Zen practice at a monastery in Minokamo in neighboring Gifu Prefecture for about five years.
She built her own monastery in 2004.
“I was looking for a place where I could make use of what I learned,” she said.
At first, Takatsu said, her neighbors talked about “a foreigner who has started doing something odd” and few people visited her. But after arranging to give a lecture at a public hall and talking to the residents, she began to win them over to what she was trying to do.
Takatsu said she named her monastery Horakuan, written with the kanji for fullness and fun, because she intends it as a place where visitors can find themselves in a relaxed atmosphere, rather than through rigorous Zen training.
“Japanese people are often influenced by others, but you should dispense with common practice and get a sense of yourself through Zen teachings,” she said.
Takatsu said she plans to introduce various unconventional Zen programs in the future, citing walking meditation in the open air and meditation with music.
“We don’t need to stick to the old principles all the time, because Zen teachings are supposed to be used in day-to-day living,” she said.