Volume XIII:2 July - December 2023
Two Weeks in Japanese Zen Monasteries
A Report on the Sixteenth East-West Spiritual Exchange Program
21 September - 4 October 2023
The sixteenth spiritual exchange of Buddhist and Christian monks and nuns took place in Japan from 21 September to 4 October 2023. The programme, which was launched in 1979, is sponsored by DIM•MID in close cooperation with Hanazono University (Kyoto). Along with  Sister Barbara Verhelst (Maison du Chemin des Roches/Belgium), Father Nathanaël de Condinguy OSB (En Calcat/France), and Brother Hugues de Suremain OSB (La Pierre-qui-Vire/France), I  participated in this year’s programme, which involved spending two weeks sharing everyday monastic life in Zen monasteries. In what follows, I offer a day-by-day account of my experience.
Thursday, 21.9. 2023
Warm welcome at the Osaka airport by Zen monks Kodo Nakagawa from the Institute for Zen Studies at Hanazono University and Thomas Yūhō Kirchner. Together we journeyed to Kyoto.
Friday, 22.9. 2023
We set off for Shōgen-ji, one of around forty training monasteries of the Rinzai Zen tradition in Japan. Head monk Jiun Arslanian welcomed us with matcha and sencha tea and sweets as part of traditional Japanese hospitality. Sitting on tatami mats, we were given some initial information about life in this training monastery, which is considered to be particularly strict. Seven monks and four nuns are currently undergoing several years of training here. Afterwards, they will return to one of the approximately 3000 Japanese Rinzai temples, possibly start a family and take on the duties of a priest. Only a few stay longer in the monastery.
After we had received eating bowls (jihatsu), chopsticks and cloths for the ritualised communal meals and a kimono hakama (trouser skirt) to take part in the monastic ceremonies, we moved into a traditional tatami room in pairs. Our bedding (futon, pillow and blanket) was rolled up on Japanese rice straw mats. There were no tables, chairs or cupboards.
In the afternoon, we had the opportunity to take part in a pottery course at the nearby Shōgen Junior College and talk to some of the students there.
At a first - still informal - dinner in the monastery, the nun Myōren Yakusawa introduced us to the rituals for dining. Accuracy down to the last detail was the top priority - from the dignified, upright posture to bowing, hand signals, gestures, and the completely silent handling of the food bowls. Following the rules precisely during the meal, which was to be consumed in silence and extremely quickly, required absolute concentration!
The correct use of shoes on the monastery grounds was also subject to the strictest discipline. They were carefully lined up and taken off when entering the interior rooms, where people walked barefoot. Toilets could only be entered with the slippers provided, which had to be carefully put back after leaving the room.
Zen practice in Shōgen-ji was more than zazen, the silent sitting in alert and at the same time relaxed attention. It was important to remain in the mindful basic posture of zazen in all everyday activities - when walking, standing, sitting, lying down (sleeping), eating together, working, and reciting sutras. The position of the hands in shashu was an expression of this continuous concentration.[1]
Saturday, 23.9. 2023
The days in Shōgen-ji essentially followed this schedule:
  • 3.10 AM: Getting up
  • 3.30 AM: Sutra recitation (chanting) in the Dharma Hall (hondō) of the monastery: loud, full of energy from the centre of the body in connection with the breath and to the rhythm of the drum; concluding with sampai, a three-fold deep bow (touching the floor with five points of the body) as an expression of reverence and loyalty to the Buddha Way.
  • 4.15 AM: “Morning rice” (rice porridge, sour plum and pickled radish). After eating, one had to clean one’s own eating bowls and chopsticks with a slice of radish and hot water. Both were then consumed so that nothing remained of the meal.
  • 5.00 AM: Zazen in the hondō. During this time, the dokusan, the short daily private conversation with the Rōshi, took place. He guides each of the monks and nuns individually by using kōans (speeches or stories from old Zen masters or questions without a rational solution). Last but not least, the silence of the spiritual master is of great importance, as each Zen student must find their own spiritual path. This practice reminded me of a former novice master (he is now an abbot) who always gave his young monks sayings from the Christian Desert Fathers to think about.
  • 6.15 AM: Samu - Zen practice at work: daily cleaning of the monastery interiors with brooms and rags, then raking leaves, sweeping the courtyard, weeding, helping in the kitchen, etc. The tea breaks at around 9.00 AM and 3.00 PM, during which we chatted casually in the shade, asked questions, talked about ourselves and enjoyed sweets, eggs and fruits donated to the monastery, were a pleasant interruption to this busy, silent work (in temperatures of around 30°C!). The conscious alternation of exertion and relaxation is an important element of Zen practice.
  • Lunch at 11.30 AM (consisting of rice, miso soup and vegetables) was followed - only for us jetlag-stricken Europeans! - by a short rest period.
  • At 1.30 PM we went back to work on the monastery grounds. During the afternoon, the big Bonshō bell was struck. One of the monks recited sutras in the hondō on behalf of all the others who were doing necessary work with us. Benedict’s principle “Nothing is to be preferred to the Work of God” (RB 43:3) came to my mind spontaneously.
  • After the “evening rice” at 5.15 PM, our group of four met at 6.15 PM in the “old” (now rarely used) hondō of the monastery to practise zazen under the guidance of Jiun-san: three times 25 minutes of sitting (motionless!), in between kinhin (zazen while walking - quite briskly). At the end, the Zen monk served us a bowl of tea, which we enjoyed in silence.
  • 8.00 PM: Taking a shower, followed by free time, which Sister Barbara and I liked to use for spiritual reading or to talk with the nuns with whom we were staying. Myōren-san told us that, looking back, she was deeply grateful for some painful experiences in her life. It was only then that she seriously embarked on a spiritual quest and discovered the Zen path for herself. When asked about the significance of her impressive braided fabric belt, she compared it to a gift ribbon around a precious present: Zen monks and nuns give themselves to Buddha, to the spiritual path, to people, and to all living beings.
  • 9.30 PM: Last sutra recitation of the day in the hondō. The Hakuinzenji Zazenwasan, a chant by Master Hakuin (1686-1769) in praise of zazen, speaks lyrically of the fact that
    every person is actually a Buddha. One does not have to seek the truth in the distance and - although one is standing in the water - cry out for salvation while dying of thirst.  On the way home to the sisters’ house at night, I reflected on the words from the Prologue of Benedict’s Rule: “Such people praise the Lord who works in them” (RB Prol 30).
Sunday, 24.9. 2023
After a brief welcome tea with Abbot Sōgen Yamakawa Rōshi, who had returned from a trip the previous evening, followed by morning house cleaning, our group of four retired to the “old” hondō. Gathered around a flat table and sitting on tatami mats, we celebrated the Eucharist with Father Nathanaël. As we worked in the garden afterwards, the biblical texts, our simple singing, and the sharing during the sermon continued to resonate in our hearts and minds.
In the afternoon, wearing protective gloves because of the corrosive ginkgo acids, we picked the fruit that had fallen from a huge female ginkgo tree, the seeds of which can be roasted and eaten. While we were still filling our sacks, more fruit fell from the tree. The next morning, the ground would be littered again and the work would begin anew. This too is the Zen way: the same daily routines, tireless repetition, always starting anew, but free and detached inside. On the advice of Head Monk Jiun-san, I took off my wristwatch, simply lived in the present moment, and did what we were told to do without thinking much about it. This letting go was a surprisingly liberating experience for me!
After our group’s evening zazen, we had tea with Jiun-san and discussed our difficulties in sitting on the floor for long periods of time in a posture that was unfamiliar to us. The Zen monk said that the hardness of the floor, his aching limbs, and the freezing winter cold had helped him to go deeper during zazen. In such situations, the only way out was to move forward. One of the secrets of the spiritual life involves facing what is difficult and consciously going through it. On the way back to the nuns’ temple at night, Sister Barbara drew my attention to two demonic statues at the entrance to the house, between which anyone who wanted to go inside had to pass.
Monday, 25.9. 2023
In the afternoon, we embarked on a special Zen path () at Shōgen Junior College under the guidance of an experienced master. We practised Japanese calligraphy (shōdō) and ink painting (sumi-e). With just a few black brushstrokes, we created a clearly reduced depiction of a leaning bamboo on absorbent thin paper. Painting involves omission. The aim was to perceive the significance of the empty space, which allows the essence to emerge more clearly.
Tuesday, 26.9. 2023
In the early morning of our departure day, Jiun-san took us to a hill near the monastery. We enjoyed the panoramic view and discussed issues of the spiritual life over a picnic. Not only in Christian, but also in Zen Buddhist monastic communities, there are few people today who engage in a life of intensive spiritual endeavour. Jiun-san’s experience in Japan is that many young people have ready-made answers as soon as there are questions or problems in their lives. Many are not willing to undertake a really serious search, to look deeply, or even to put all their eggs in one basket. When visiting relatives, he noticed that some of them did not even stick with one programme while watching TV; instead, lout of boredom they flicked from one channel to another.
The practice of begging (takuhatsu) at Shōgen-ji, as described by Jiun-san, was physically arduous and challenging. The monks and nuns walked many
kilometres in all kinds of weather, wearing traditional straw sandals, carrying heavy loads, and physically/psychologically pushed to their limits. However, Jiun-san was grateful for the encounters he made with people who shared their material possessions with the monks out of an inner attitude of freedom and letting go.
When we returned to the monastery, Abbot Sōgen Yamakawa Rōshi welcomed us for a final spiritual conversation over tea and sweets. In response to Sister Barbara’s question about “Mara”, the adverse, the “devilish” in the Buddhist tradition, Abbot Sōgen referred to Buddha and Mara as two states within human beings. Those who do not accept Mara will be defeated by it. Zen practice, however, promotes the fearlessness to look at the unpleasant and approach it - including Mara. Zen involves calming the body and mind and finding that inner stillness and emptiness within oneself that allows the truth to emerge and enables one to face reality. When asked about the characteristics of a good Rinzai monk, the Rōshi replied that there are no “good” or “bad” monks. Rather, everyone must follow their own path. A personal teacher, whom you choose and who chooses you, is of great importance.
While taking the final photo in the monastery courtyard, Abbot Sōgen drew our attention to a young pine tree that seemed to be growing out of a large rock. It had dug its roots into the rock piece by piece. Sand was blown into the hollow. Rain also nourished the root so that it could penetrate further into the stone. Heat and cold, rain and drought - everything is one: the evergreen pine tree that defies the weather and the changing seasons, which will one day pierce the stone and reach the ground, symbolises the Zen path, the unwavering journey ...
Wednesday, 27. 9. 2023
After a refreshing morning walk through a “temple town” near the Hanazono Kaikan guesthouse in Kyoto, where we had spent the night, our group split up. Brother Hugues and Father Nathanaël set off for Tenryu-ji Monastery. Sister Barbara and I travelled on the Japanese high-speed Shinkansen train, accompanied by Nakagawa-san and Naomi Maeda, the former librarian of the Institute of Zen Studies, to Aichi Senmon Nisodo in Nagoya, currently the only training monastery for Sōtō Zen nuns in Japan.
Abbess Shundo Aoyama Rōshi (b, 1933), a well-known Zen master, author, and speaker at home and abroad, gave us a warm welcome with tea, grapes, and sweets. Among the many gifts she offered us was a book about her life. At the age of five, Aoyama Rōshi was sent to be educated in a monastery run by her aunt. She was ordained a nun at the age of fifteen. After training and extensive studies, she led periods of intensive Zen practice (sesshin) and taught the arts of tea ceremony (sadō), calligraphy (shōdō), and flower arranging (kadō). She has been abbess at Aichi Senmon Nisodo since 1976. She enthusiastically told us about her impressions of the East-West spiritual exchange in 2004, where she was able to live in European monasteries, visit the tomb of St Benedict in Montecassino, and take part in a private audience with Pope John Paul II.
After moving into our shared room, Sister Barbara and I met Jisei-san, a Sōtō nun from Switzerland who is staying in Nagoya for a six-month training programme. She explained to us the customs of the zendō, which differ from those of the Rinzai tradition, and the use of ōryōki (eating) bowls. Over afternoon tea, we got to know the all the members of the community who reside here. The Head Nun, Zuiko Ikeda, who spoke excellent English, interpreted for us.
After dinner and cleaning up together in the kitchen, Jisei-san accompanied us to the ritual bath (one of the monastery areas with strict silence) and introduced us to the customs there (prostrations, gatha/short mindfulness verses, sutra recitations).
I noticed small pieces of paper with Japanese mindfulness verses in many places around the house. Their recitation helped the nuns not to live on “autopilot” during their various everyday activities, but to be awake and present in the here and now. In the corridors, we noticed bodhisattva altars decorated with flowers, which the nuns never passed without bowing.
Thursday, 28.9. 2023
A typical day at Aichi Senmon Nisodo went like this:
After getting up at 4.00 AM, we made our way to the Zendō in silence. Ritually correct, we entered the dimly lit room on the left side of the entrance with our left foot first, bowed with our hands together at nose level (gasshō) in front of the altar of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom. In a collected posture (shashu), we walked to our place, bowed in front of it, turned clockwise to the meditators on the opposite side and bowed again. We then silently took our place on the meditation cushion (zafu) and turned to face the wall.
Zazen began at 4.15 AM. Because of the communal concentration of all practitioners, a dense, energised atmosphere prevailed in the zendō. Facing the wall in front of me, I had an uneasy feeling when I saw the slow-moving shadow of the nun walking quietly around the zendō with a slat-like wooden stick (kyosaku) to encourage sleepy practitioners by striking them on the shoulder muscle. Just the thought of it drove away any tiredness! The pace of the walking meditation that followed after about 40 minutes was - as with the daily sutra recitation - calmer than in the Rinzai tradition. There were also differences between the two Zen schools with regard to the use of kōans. Central to Sōtō Zen, the “Zen of silent awakening”, is shikantaza, “just sitting” - without intention, without following or suppressing one’s own thoughts, in inner detachment. The uninterrupted maintenance of this basic attitude is, so to speak, the great Koan of Soto Zen.
  • At 5.15 AM in the Dharma Hall - as on the 28th of every month - there was a thanksgiving ceremony with sutra recitation for peace within the monastic community. As a foreigner, I was struck from the very first day by the Japanese word arigatō (“thank you!”), which the nuns constantly used among themselves and also with us. This continual expression of thanks was neither a drill nor a thoughtless routine, but the expression of a keen sense of what people owe each other on a daily basis. Moreover, individuals never passed by each other without a greeting but bowed briefly. A cheerful, relaxed atmosphere characterised life together in this community.
  • 6.30 AM: house cleaning;
  • 7.30 AM: breakfast;
  • 8.30 AM: samu (sweeping leaves, sewing, cleaning);
  • 12.00 PM: lunch, washing up together, then samu (without any scheduled time for rest) until the evening, though there was a tea break at 3.00 PM
  • 6.00 PM: dinner; 9.00 PM: lights out throughout the house (studying with desk lighting was allowed, however).
Because of the various festivals and rituals that occurred during our stay, the agenda was often modified. On this Thursday, for example, we had the opportunity to take part in a lesson on ceremonial Japanese chanting (with accompanying instruments) and to practise it! The afternoon sutra recitation was followed by a ceremony to mark the full moon festival. After dinner, the nuns invited us to a small full moon celebration over tea and snacks.
Friday, 29.9. 2023
At 5.10 AM, a sutra chanting ceremony began in the Dharma Hall on the occasion of the memorial day of the two founding figures of Sōtō Zen: Dōgen Zenji (1200-1253) and Keizan Zenji (1268-1325). The nuns repeatedly performed triple ritual prostrations (sampai) in deep respect and gratitude on a black cloth (zagu), which was folded into a white cross shape.
At 10.00 AM, we gathered for a talk by Aoyama Rōshi followed by a tea ceremony in the Dharma Hall. My gaze fell on one of the many ikebana arrangements made by the abbess around the house. In her practice of the “flower path”, she invests a lot of time and attention in things that will pass away in a few days. This is precisely why Aoyama Rōshi considers Kadō to be a salutary art. It brings people into contact with the becoming and passing of life. The abbess deliberately uses broken, dried twigs and gnawed leaves, as the plants in the vessel symbolise human existence. Aoyama Rōshi is convinced that people lose touch with real life when they ignore aging, impermanence and death. In her conversations with us, she liked to quote Zen master Dōgen Zenji. He taught people to always enjoy the “brocade of life” woven from the four seasons of life (birth, ageing, illness, and death) maintaining the same attitude. - In my mind’s eye, this “fabric of life” finally transformed into the white robe of the resurrection (cf. Mt 17:2; Rev 19:8)!
In the afternoon of this special memorial day, Zuiko-san surprised us with an invitation to visit the Tokugawa Art Museum and relax by taking a walk in the park there.
Saturday, 30.9. 2023
Today’s work was entirely dedicated to preparations for the sesshin starting tomorrow. We cleaned the zendō and rehearsed sutra recitations. After the midday meal, Aoyama Rōshi handed each nun a new book of sutras in honour of Ānanda, a cousin and disciple of the Buddha. He had campaigned for women to be allowed to follow the monastic path. The books provided indications of the melody for chanting the sutras, which are very different from the neumes of Gregorian chant.
Sunday, 1.10. 2023
During the sesshin, each day was characterised by alternating zazen, kinhin, sutra recitation, work and meals (together with the external sesshin participants in the Dharma Hall). During the Japanese teishōs (lectures by Aoyama Rōshi in the morning and afternoon), Sister Barbara, Jisei-san and I watched video recordings of the abbess’s earlier teishōs (with English translation), in which she spoke about what is probably Japan’s best-known Zen text: Master Dōgen’s Shōbōgenzō (“The Treasury of the True Dharma Eye”).
Monday, 2.10. 2023
After zazen, kinhin, sutra recitation, breakfast and cleaning our room, we said goodbye to Aoyama Rōshi and the nuns of the monastery - grateful for their warm hospitality, the valuable spiritual impulses and their benevolent patience with us during the rituals and ceremonies that were unfamiliar to us. On the way to the railway station, Zuiko-san showed us some of the sights in Nagoya by car. Packed with farewell gifts from the nuns and spiritually enriched, we boarded the Shinkansen to Kyoto, where we met Brother Hugues and Father Nathanaël again.
Tuesday, 3.10. 2023
On our free day in Kyoto, Yūhō-san, Nakagawa-san and
Farewell photo with Aoyama Roshi
Farewell photo with Aoyama Roshi
another monk from the Zen Institute showed us fascinating sights of the city: the Golden Pavilion and the Temple of the Silver Pavilion in the middle of magnificent parks, Shokoku-ji (the headquarters of all Rinzai temples in the Middle Ages), and the Temple of the 1001 Kannon Statues (Bodhisattva of Compassion).
In the afternoon we returned to the Zen Institute to prepare for tomorrow’s symposium. We were particularly honoured to receive a warm welcome from Prof. Fumio Isoda, the President of Hanazono University.
Wednesday, 4.10. 2023
In the morning of today’s memorial day (St Francis), we celebrated the Eucharist with Father Nathanaël in an office of the Zen Institute. I also had in mind all the Zen Buddhist “blessed fools” (as I called them in memory of the Christian “Fools of God”) that we had met during these days: Men and women who, in simplicity and unpretentiousness, strict discipline and detachment, joy and inner freedom, have embarked on a spiritual path on which they are unsparingly confronted with themselves and at the same time enabled to serve others unselfishly.
The afternoon symposium was attended by professors and staff from Hanazono University, Zen masters and monks from various Buddhist monasteries as well as Zuiko-san, representing the Aichi Senmon Nisodo. After the introductory speech by the head of the Institute for Zen Studies, Matsutake Kanzan Rōshi, and various short welcoming speeches, those present listened with interest and some amusement to our reports. Afterwards, the monks and nuns in charge of the monasteries where we had been guests reflected on the time we had spent together.
During the subsequent question-and-answer session, the current lack of young people in both Buddhist and Christian monasteries was one of the topics discussed. Seven of the forty Rinzai training monasteries are currently vacant. In the others, an average of five monks are in training. Many vacancies in Japanese Zen temples can no longer be covered. We decided to keep exchanging ideas on this problem in the future. The lifelong commitment of Christian monks and nuns in their respective communities was greatly appreciated.
The symposium ended harmoniously with dinner in the Hanazono University cafeteria.
Thursday, 5.10. 2023
We travelled home deeply grateful to all those who made this interfaith exchange possible and to all those whose lives we were able to share for a while. Special thanks go to Father Pierre-François de Béthune OSB (Clerlande/Belgium) for his untiring encouragement and support of the programme up to today!
These days also set a lot in motion within myself: a deeper sense of my own vocation and the appreciation of all Christian, but also non-Christian, companions in the spiritual search that makes up our lives.
Manuela Scheiba OSB
[1] In Rinzai Zen, the right inner hand held at chest level is covered with the left outer hand, the thumbs are crossed, the elbows are held away from the body so that both forearms form a straight line parallel to the ground.
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