Volume XIV:1 January - June 2024
The author with Sr Manuela Scheiba
The author with Sr Manuela Scheiba


My Experience of the Sixteenth 
Monastic Interreligious Exchange
Japan - September 2023

When I returned from this unforgettable experience in Japanese Zen monasteries, friends asked me to tell them what I had experienced. Ideally, I would have invited them to sit with me on a zafu and commune with the great silence; or join me weeding grass from vast Zen rock gardens; or accompany me in the ritual of eating from bowls with chopsticks; or chant sutras in Sino-Japanese. How do you tell the story of such a dense experience, and from what angle do you approach it?
There are four words that help me speak about what I experienced: beauty, asceticism, paradox, and gratitude.
1 Beauty: “Beauty will save the world” (Dostoyevsky)
Beauty and refinement seemed omnipresent in the Land of the Rising Sun: from tea plantations in the hills to culinary presentations, from rock gardens to traditional dress, from temple architecture and calligraphy to gift wrapping and the smallest everyday household objects.
The two monasteries we visited, Shogen-ji and Niso-do in Nagoya, were exemplary in this regard.
Above all, there is the beauty of sitting in the vertical “noble posture” that conveys an immediate impression of presence, vigilance, and dignity.
To sit in silence and without any movement, to be present with all one’s heart: that is beauty!
I find this attitude to be contagious. As I watched young and old nuns sitting upright on their zafus, their faces at once serious and relaxed, I longed to join them and experience this radiance.
Mother Aoyama told us that twenty years ago, during an inter-religious meeting in Italy, the faithful were struck by the sitting posture of the Zen monks, which was such a contrast with the posture of the priests, who crossed their arms and legs as they sat on their chairs. She laughed as she recalled this memory and quoted Dōgen: “Posture gives birth to our true nature.”
The various liturgical rituals are like a sacred and solemn drama. Incense and offerings are presented to the Bodhisattvas with codified gestures and prostrations. All the senses are called upon to participate in the beauty of these liturgical ceremonies.
I observed great delicacy in the way the nuns related to one another, and I sensed that their tender feelings for Mother Aoyama, their roshi, were reciprocated. Almost every sentence was punctuated by “thank you” or “excuse me.” Even if these are polite formulas, they connote a benevolent spirit that speaks to me of the beauty of the human fabric. One morning after zazen, each nun bowed to the others to thank them for being there. What richness it is to experience such delicacy in community life!
At Shōgen-ji on the outskirts of Kyoto, we were introduced to zazen in a pottery class. To fashion a clay pot on the potter’s wheel, we were advised to breathe, stand up straight, and, once centered, to maintain our axis. The thumb forms the hollow and the other fingers caress the clay, forming an undulating mass of beauty. We were  taught that imperfection is welcome and even part of the learning process. In Zen, error is precious, like weeds that become fertilizer. What counts is not the result, we were assured, but the effort and process required to achieve it. And this effort is not the result of willpower.
“ Launch your practice in the midst of your illusions,” “It takes 100 failures to reach the  goal” (Dōgen)
I learned that the Japanese concept of beauty differs from the purely aesthetic approach that strives for perfection. In Japanese art, which is influenced by Buddhism and Taoism, impermanence is an integral dimension of beauty. So is imperfection. When we see a flower missing a petal, or a forest of young, twisted, or dead trees, what we see is both harmonious and imperfect, in tune with the natural cycles of life, allowing authenticity and spontaneity to emerge.
In the art of Japanese flower arranging, ikebana, a bouquet must contain a wilted flower and one that is blooming. Aoyama roshi explained that the artist must anticipate what the bouquet or flower arrangement will look like two days later, keeping in mind the harmony of cosmic cycles.
2. Asceticism: “He must increase and I must decrease” (St. John the Baptist)
All art requires discipline. So does the spiritual path, and my brief experience of life in Zen monasteries indicates that it is very (too?) ascetic.
At Shōgen-ji, a monastery renowned for its rigor, an American nun told us that life there was like a training course for para-commandos that is suited for young men in their prime of life. I can attest to that!
is no free time in fast-paced schedule from early morning (3.30 a.m.) to evening (9:00 p.m.). Nor does one have any time to oneself. Everything is communal, right down to the bath.
Meals were very austere and the atmosphere was tense. The monk in charge of correcting the novices was constantly reprimanding them for the way they set down their chopsticks or the noise they made with their bowls. We had to eat as rapidly as possible. Speed helps to banish thoughts, we were told.
At a sutra service I saw a young monk who had misread being harshly cuffed. When I wanted to talk about it afterwards, I was told that a Westerner wouldn’t understand.
Tea breaks, on the other hand, were relaxed and joyful, a time for sharing and fraternizing. Monks and nuns vied in showing us their attentiveness and kindness.
I had a thousand and one questions, to which a young nun replied that she had come to the monastery not to get answers to her questions or to accumulate knowledge or experience but to get rid of stuff. Her comment deeply affected me and invited me, as a Christian, to deepen the spirit of evangelical poverty.
At Niso-do, the monastery for women we visited in Nagoya, discipline was equally rigorous. “The schedule is our master,” we were warned—and a rather despotic master at that! Sister Manuela and I never knew the times for services or work; we were given very little information and the schedules changed every day—Dōgen’s birthday, a full moon festival, sesshin, etc. We were told simply to wait without being informed what we were waiting for. In other words, we were to be ready to move on immediately to this or that other activity. Lanza del Vasto would say, “No time is ever wasted; it’s always time that can be used for prayer.” Easier said than done. . . .
A nun explained to us that we were only allowed to bathe on days with a 4 or a 9, proudly adding that their monastery is closer to the tradition of Dōgen than the male monasteries. Everything is codified, regulated to the extreme. For a rational mind, not understanding the meaning of what you are doing is indeed a great asceticism. I was reminded of the icon of Saint John the Baptist with his head on a platter, symbolizing his decapitated ego. Not wanting to understand everything, descending from the head to the heart, is also an important element of our tradition. But how far can we go in blind obedience? We are all well aware that in our own churches, abuses of power were justified by an appeal to sacrosanct obedience. Working without seeing the point of it, being told to dust something that someone else has just dusted, for example, is also an asceticism. During my study of sociology, I was enthusiastic about Marcel Mauss’s concept of “non-utilitarianism.” I now had a chance to put this theory into practice by thinking of activity as another way of meditating.
When we were told to mop the long wooden corridors adjoining the dojo by holding a damp cloth on the floor and pushing it along with our hands as we ran, I suggested using a mop so I wouldn't have to bend over. A monk replied, “You want to change a thousand years of tradition?”
If we put our slippers away perpendicularly, a nun would come and straighten them up horizontally. We had to walk barefoot or shod, depending on the location (slippers inside, special slipper in the WC, shoes outside, bare feet on wood and on tatami mats, white socks for certain ceremonies . . .).It all seemed like a really big deal.
Similarly, if we mentioned how tired we were, we were gently told that in the monastery fatigue is shared by all. In fact, we observed monks falling asleep during meditation or even when working in the kitchen. Asceticism and determination sometimes clash with letting go, abandonment, and the place that is supposed to be given to error and imperfection.
In the end, I found life in a Zen monastery rather “elitist,” in the sense that it is reserved for very strong physical and mental constitutions. With great kindness, the nuns and monks did everything they could to make things easier for me because of my handicap, providing me with a small stool so I wouldn’t have to sit on the ground when weeding or on the floor when eating and meditating. Nonetheless, it was still very difficult for me physically.
Surprisingly, however, my intense pain allowed me to meditate more deeply than ever. It was as if my mind, focused on a point of pain, could stop flitting here and there. Out of pain good can come.
3. Paradoxes: “Error is not the opposite of truth, it is forgetfulness of the opposite truth” (Blaise Pascal).
Living in a Zen monastery led me to contemplate the paradoxes of this tradition, neither idealizing nor demonizing it, but rather savoring its tasty as well as its bitter fruits, as I do in my own Christian tradition. In fact, the dishes of Zen cuisine are bland, sweet, salty, spicy, and bitter. Everything is to be tasted; everything is part of life.
Japan is a country of contrasts. In the city, I saw restaurants in ultra-modern railway stations and hotels where you are served by robots. Public restrooms had toilets with control panels indicating several options: “small flush,” “big flush,” “music or river sound,” “water jet for cleansing,” “warmth for the toilet seat.” Modern Japan is a futuristic world that contrasts with the monastic world, which operates according to a way of life that has not changed for centuries.
The kitchen and cooking utensils at Shōgen-ji date back to the last century. To cook the morning rice (unsalted, by the way, and served with just
a pickled plum), you first have to light the fire. This poverty and simplicity really inspired me, but I wondered whether the monks lacked protein, since soya was so expensive.
On the other hand, they accept all gifts given to them, so sometimes they eat meat and fish, but mostly lots of cookies, cakes, and sweets.
At Niso-do, I was struck by the ecological, zero-waste kitchen: nothing is wasted, everything is recycled. Water used to wash rice is used for washing dishes since its starch makes it slightly abrasive and it absorbs oil. It is also used to water plants. On the other hand, there are no garbage cans on the street. Everything is over-wrapped in plastic, even cotton swabs and toothpicks in the hotels. Another paradox: the Japanese seem to be very much in touch with the cosmos and nature, but at the same time, the cities are very polluted.
In the streets, this contrast between the traditional world and the consumer society is also evident in the way people dress: kimonos rub shoulders with purple hair and suits and ties.
At the monasteries, as I’ve already mentioned, the austerity of the traditional meals was counterbalanced by an abundance of sweets and pastries during tea breaks. Mother Aoyama explained that, having observed the nuns secretly eating sweets, she preferred them to be shared together. At Shōgen-ji, we were told that it’s not uncommon for novices to go out for a beer after 10:00 pm, only to return early in the morning for zazen.
Japanese submission to social pressure is so strong that you need to let off steam. Sake helps!
In Rinzai Zen, koans are essential. At Shōgen-ji, every monk sees the roshi twice a week for koan practice. These enigmatic disciple-master exchanges invite the monk to go beyond logic and plunge into paradox. This gives Zen a facetious character that contrasts delightfully with the black robes, silence, and monastic severity.
On our last day at Shōgen-ji, we had a long talk with Sogen Yamakawa roshi, the monastery’s abbot. I asked him if he had ever met the Buddha, to which he replied that he met him every day—only to add that if you meet him, you have to kill him.
Paradox goes well with Buddhism’s own non-duality.
When Sister Manuela asked him what a good monk was, he replied that there were no good or bad disciples, that we all walk together in the same direction. That reminded me of Christ’s admonition not to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Moved by the fact that, every morning, a few monks wash the statues of the monastery’s founding ancestors and give them breakfast, I asked what Buddhism had to say about life after death. “The dead all become Buddhas,” he replied. Immediately afterwards, he told a story about a disciple who was astonished that his venerable master, who was dying, said he was going to hell. Faced with his disciple’s astonishment, the master told him he was going there to wait for him. Paradoxical responses such as this show us that when our truths become rigid, set in stone, they lead to the sclerosis of living beings.
For me, one of the great paradoxes I observed in Japanese monasteries is that the deeply rooted tradition of Zen allows for openness and exchange. But there is also the danger of falling into legalism and traditionalism (the letter before the spirit). The tradition can dry up if it is not invigorated and renewed by new generations.
At the final symposium, attended by members of the Institute of Zen Studies who had welcomed us, as well as some Zen monastics who had participated in exchanges with monks and nuns from the West, we had wonderful and enlightening discussions. Only two Buddhist women were present In the assembly of around thirty people, a nun and a laywoman. Two people were under forty-five.
In Japan, as in France, Belgium, and Germany, the monastic tradition is in peril. There are few young vocations. Venerable ageing monks valiantly continue to live and pass on the tradition, while accepting the ebb and flow of vocations.
I wonder. . . .  In 2024, can a tradition, whether it be Christian or Buddhist, continue to distinguish so clearly between the roles of men and women? Is it right to continue with a mode of governance that is so hierarchical, when in the civil sphere new, more collaborative ways of deciding and leading are flourishing? Should we not adapt a tradition that no longer attracts vocations to the evolutions that have taken place the contemporary world? It’s an open question, a koan. . . .
4. Thank you: “Arigatō”
To conclude, I’d like to add a fourth key word, “Gratitude.”
Thank you to the Lord first, and then to the Buddha, to Monastic Interreligious Dialogue, and to all those monks and nuns who have gone before me on this exhilarating path. Thank you to all the people who welcomed us with such love, attention, and generosity.
 I returned home with my suitcases full of exquisite gifts and a heart full of joy.
Translated by William Skudlarek
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