Meditation with monks

A bell tolls at first light. The old timber “nightingale” floors chirp under stockinged feet, there’s a whisper of saffron and black robes, a rumour of conversation and the monks enter the temple. Mist drifts around the eaves like incense and there’s a chill in the mountain air, yet behind the sliding paper screens it’s warm and dark. Low, golden lanterns illuminate an ornate altar, around which the monks sit perfectly still.

There are four monks, ageless, heads shaven. The head priest, seated in the middle facing the altar, lights a stick of incense. The monk to his left begins chanting softly, then the others. The words, incomprehensible to me, have a soothing monotony. The baritone sutras rise and fall, sinuous as breath, regular as heartbeat. My thoughts are lassoed by the rich ringing of a bell, the occasional collision of cymbals, but otherwise wander free no matter how I try to still them.

“Just focus on the breath,” the chief priest, Ryusho Soeda, had suggested during meditation last night, though of more immediate concern is the acute discomfort of sitting in the customary seiza position – kneeling and seated on one’s feet – for more than a few minutes. “Relax,” he reassures later, “we have practised all our lives.”

At the end of the ceremony I step outside. Before the temple is an urn holding a perfect lotus flower and a stone garden raked precisely into a swirling Sanskrit symbol. There is no trace of what I imagine to be a levitating gardener – his footsteps cannot be seen here or in the smaller pebble garden outsidemy room, framed by crepe myrtle and maple bearing the blush of autumn, which I gaze upon until the call to breakfast.

Rengejoin is one of 117 temples and more than 2000 shrines, pagodas, stupas and religious landmarks at Koyasan, a sacred mountain 1000 metres above the plains of Osaka to the north. At the beginning of time, gods descended to live in the Kii mountain range, spanning Koyasan and two other peaks that are now World Heritage listed. Its dense forests became the spiritual heartland of Shinto, the indigenous Japanese worship of nature, and Buddhism, after it came from China.

In 816, after years of study in China, a Japanese monk named Kukai climbed the holy mountain of Mount Koya and created the first temple of the Shingon sect of Esoteric Buddhism among its eight peaks, said to resemble a lotus. As he travelled he became known in noble circles as a great thinker and calligrapher and among commoners, with whom he worked and taught, as a man of action. Kukai was regarded as a saint by the time he fell ill at the age of 62, when his followers believe he passed into a state of eternal meditation rather than death. Along with his body, the spirit of Kobo-Daishi, as he became known, is believed to reside at the end of a forest path in Koyasan.

On my way to his resting place I walk through the town, past young robed men shod in dazzling white socks and the wooden thongs called geta. The town has the usual services – general stores, a couple of cafes, a barber (it can’t do so well, in a town where most men have shaved heads) – but the local haberdashery sells monks’ working gear, the produce shops sell bunches of umbrella pine for home altars and there are mandala paintings and prayer beads, Buddhas and religious knick-knacks sold everywhere.

Just outside town and along a two-and-a-half-kilometre path beneath centuries-old cedars is the extraordinary cemetery, Okunoin. Once Kobo-Daishi was interred here, everyone wanted to be buried close by. It’s thought half a million graves are here, the little carved stones of ordinary people beside the grand mausoleums of shoguns and emperors – all jumbled together and shrouded in moss and glowing in dappled sunlight. Mist hangs high in the cedars and all sound is muffled but the silence doesn’t feel deathly. It is called the “forest therapy walk” by locals and the effect of entering this city of spirits is powerful and calming, regardless of one’s spiritual inclination.

I pause at the third bridge. On one side is an audience of stupas ankle-deep in the gentle flow of the Tamagawa River, offered in memory of miscarried and aborted babies and people who have drowned. On the other is a line of Jizo statues (a powerful Buddhist protector) being doused with ladles of water – worshippers write the names of their dead loved ones on strips of wood, present them to the Jizo, splash water and pray for their souls. In the river beside them three women dressed in white robes are fully immersed, praying and chanting. And beyond the bridge is the mausoleum of Kobo-Daishi, surrounded by three peaks and a cluster of halls, one of them aglow with hundreds of oil lamps and flanked by two stone lanterns said to have been kept alight for 900 years.

Beyond the cemetery is a network of walks through misty forests of cedar and hinoki. I walk through a landscape as mysterious as Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films, quiet and wild, and in a country of extreme hygiene and order I understand why these mountains are sacred. Pilgrims still approach Mount Koya by the seven main paths, including the Choishimichi, or stone marker path, forged by Kukai and marked by 180 stone pagodas.

There are 52 temples in Koyasan that welcome travellers and a handful are well geared for Western visitors. I stay in two shukubo, or temple lodgings: Muryokoin, with simple rooms and a pond full of koi as large as puppies; and Rengejoin, a larger temple with rooms as well appointed as any ryokan. Both shukubo have exquisite gardens and a similar daily routine: monks and guests attend prayers at 6am in the temple, followed by breakfast at 7am, evening meditation at 5.30pm, followed by dinner at 6.30pm, bathing until 10.30pm. If there are late-night bars in town, I don’t find them.

Dinner on the tatami mats in my room at Muryokoin comes on three trays, each as perfectly composed as haiku poetry, and accompanied by a visit from Hidenori Iwawaki, who seems pleased when I address him as Masterchef.

Shojin ryori, a cuisine developed over more than 1000 years in Japanese Buddhist temples, is based on a religious commandment prohibiting the butchering of animals and is intended to encourage spiritual focus. There are no meat, fish or animal products used and no garlic, onions or strong flavourings. What I imagine might taste bland is quite the opposite. The subtle flavours and textures are a triumph of invention and refinement, based on balancing five colours, five flavours and five cooking methods.

Masterchef urges me to start with konnyaku “sashimi”, little wedges of intensely coloured green, red and white jelly made from a starchy vegetable known as devil’s tongue; its complicated preparation alone might employ a kitchen of monks. In a bowl of thick plum-flavoured miso is a square of goma dofu, a Koya specialty of ground roasted sesame seeds and arrowroot tofu, topped with a tiny autumn leaf carved from carrot as a nod to the season. A neat tangle of soypoached matsutake mushroom, which grows only under red pine trees in autumn, sits beside a plate bearing a roasted chestnut, two wedges of koya dofu, another mountain specialty of freezedried tofu, and a tiny pickled ginger root.

There’s something pickled, something raw, slightly sweet and a hint of sourness, the crunch of lotus root beside the creaminess of eggplant, both tempura-fried, and delicate dipping sauces and stocks with each dish. The tastes and textures are so engrossing that eating becomes another form of meditation.

After dinner one night at Rengejoin, served on cushions in a large room framed by fusuma (very old sliding doors painted with scenes of mountain beauty) we’re joined by Kiyomi Soeda, the head monk’s 89-year-old mother and diminutive matriarch of the 700-year-old temple. In precise English, with barely an accent, she tells of growing up on the mountain, learning English as a child in far-away Tokyo and returning to Koyasan as a young woman when English was regarded as the “enemy” language. At the end of World War II, suddenly her skill as a translator for the villagers and American troops was vital. She describes the post-war poverty – “we counted every grain of rice” – her marriage to a priest and their struggle to save Rengejoin from ruin. Faith is a great healer.

Next morning, after prayers and a perfectly composed breakfast, I ask head priest Soeda-san the difference between Zen Buddhism, well known in the West, at least superficially, and the lesser known Shingon Buddhism, which originated here on Mount Koya. “They are different paths to the top of the same mountain,” he explains over a cup of hojicha, roasted green tea. They are difficult concepts to explain in a second language but he is unflappable – “Zen”, I might have said before I knew better. Zen would deny desire, he says, but Shingon recognises it exists and “seeks to transform it”.

Evening meditation in the temple lasts exactly 40 minutes, the time it takes to burn a stick of incense – “long enough to gain some spiritual tranquillity”, Soeda-san says. An old stereotype has an exhausted Japanese salaryman returning home to his wife with only three words: Meshi! Furo! Neru! (meal, bath, bed), the words symbolic of an empty marriage. For me, the routine is deeply therapeutic: morning meditation, breakfast, walking, reading, evening meditation, meshi (three trays of shojin ryori), furo (a long, hot soak in a big wooden bath) and neru, a long, dreamless sleep. My own modest nirvana.

Helen Anderson travelled courtesy of the Japan National Tourism Organisation and Singapore Airlines.


Getting there Singapore Airlines flies to Osaka for about $1150, with an aircraft change in Singapore. Jetstar flies from Melbourne for $854 and from Sydney for $716, both with an aircraft change at the Gold Coast. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.) From Kansai Airport, take a 40-minute train to Nankai Namba Station in Osaka, then a train bound for Gokurakubashi, which takes about 75 minutes, then a 10-minute cablecar ride to Koyasan.

Staying there Shukubo, or temple lodgings, usually have simple tatami-mat rooms and futons with shared toilets and a traditional communal bathhouse (separate genders). Breakfast and dinner are usually included in the tariff. Rate for each person at Muryokoin from ¥9500 ($116); book by phone via Koyasan Shukubo Temple Lodging Cooperative, +81 736 56 2616, see shukubo.jp/eng. Rooms at the more upmarket Rengejoin cost from ¥9500 a person twin share, from ¥11,550 for a single. Phone the temple on +81 736 56 2233.

– Rent bicycles and English-language audio guides at the Koyasan tourist information centre, where you can also buy a ticket covering admission to six of the major temples and museums. See shukubo.jp/eng.

Sydney Morning Herald

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“A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki” (DVD)

“A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki”

Avant-garde musician John Cage; Catholic mystic Thomas Merton; Beat writers Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouac; psychotherapists Carl Jung and Erich Fromm; Zen teachers Robert Aitken and Philip Kapleau, philosophers Karl Jaspers and Martin Heidegger: 20th century giants all, and all have one thing in common — they were deeply influenced by Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, a gentle scholar-practitioner from Japan.

This litany of names is merely suggestive of the massive impact that D. T. Suzuki had on western culture — an influence that is documented in a new film, A Zen Life — because so far we haven’t mentioned the 100 or so books that have found their way (by now) into the hands of millions of people throughout the world: works that include classics such as A Manual of Zen Buddhism, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism, and The Essence of Buddhism. Simply put, the Buddhist world would be very different today had D. T. Suzuki not come to the west. Suzuki was in fact a “kalyana mitra” (spiritual friend / teacher) to an entire generation.

A Zen Life offers a blow-by-blow account of Suzuki’s life. Suzuki was born shortly after the Meiji restoration. After centuries of self-imposed isolation from the outside world and the adulation of the medieval Samurai warrior code, Japan was forced to open up by an encounter with US warships, eager for new lands to colonize. The Japanese reaction was, on the whole, to embrace modernity and to import (and improve upon) western technology. Before long, Japan took on a western superpower (Russia) and was victorious in war. But this was a time of internal turmoil within Japan as well. The deposed samurai class was becoming increasingly irrelevant and had lost its grip on power.

Suzuki was born in 1870 into a samurai family just as his father lost the patronage that he had formerly enjoyed. The father died when Suzuki was only six, and a brother died shortly afterward. Teitaro, who taught himself English, experienced further loss when, in his 20th year, his mother also passed away. This seems to have been the last straw, propelling the young Suzuki to explore Zen Buddhism.

He became a disciple of Shaku Soen, an enlightened master who recognized Suzuki’s worth as a translator, and who had him translate the talk he gave at the Parliament of Religions at the 1897 World Fair in Chicago. The Parliament represented a new openness on the part of the West to learning from Eastern traditions. It was under Soen that Suzuki was given the Dharma name, Daisetz, meaning “Absolute Simplicity.”

Shaku Soen asked Suzuki to translate The Gospel of Buddha into Japanese, and the work was well-received. The writer, editor, and student of comparative religion, Paul Carus, invited Suzuki to move to the US and work at the Open Court publishing house, but Suzuki was concerned that he had not yet had a satori experience, and repeatedly deferred his move overseas. At last his satori happened while he was ascending a tree-lined staircase at a temple, and Suzuki experienced a sense of oneness: “I was the trees,” he later said. At the age of 27, in 1897, he was free to move to the West.

Suzuki worked for Carus’ Open Court publishing company for ten years, and he began his own writings. His life’s work of introducing the West to Zen had begun.

Suzuki moved back to Japan in 1909, and took up teaching, both at a university and in an aristocratic high school, where he influenced those who were to become the finest movers and shakers of that generation. Beatrice Erskine Lane, who had fallen in love with Suzuki in the US, followed him to Japan and the two were married and then adopted a half-Scottish, half-Japanese boy, at a time when mixed-race children were looked upon with great suspicion in Japanese society. The couple also started an animal shelter, much to the consternation of their neighbors. Both taught at a Shin Buddhist-associated university.

Suzuki visited London in 1936 and met Christmas Humphries, the founder of The Buddhist Society who went on to republish many of Suzuki’s works, and Alan Watts, who under the influence of Buddhism, abandoned his position as an Episcopalian minister to become a proponent of Zen.

Beatrice died in 1938, and Suzuki abruptly stopped teaching and founded a library in Tokeiji temple. And then war broke out, as Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, determined to clear out US influence from the Pacific so that it could establish its own sphere of influence.

Suzuki has, quite inappropriately I believe, been accused of being pro-war, or at least not sufficiently anti-war (a criticism that perhaps is easy to make when one is at a safe distance from a repressive and fanatical dictatorship). In fact he is on record as saying that a war between the two countries he loved was ridiculous, and at a “going away” ceremony for students at Otani University he said, “What reason is there for young Americans and young Japanese to kill each other?” He urged them to stay alive at all costs, even if it meant becoming prisoners of war (a shocking thing to say at that time). He told them that after the war, “young people like you will have to rebuild the world” and that they must “come back alive.” His confidence in the eventual end of the war was absolute, and he continued to write in Japanese for eventual publication in English.

At the war’s end, Westerners started turning up on his doorstep in, it would seem, droves, including the renowned Philip Kapleau.

Suzuki’s travels began once again, and in 1947 he attended the second East West Philosophers’ Conference, having missed the first because of the illness that led to his wife’s death. Suzuki stayed on in Hawai’i for a few months to teach at the university there. (Roshi to-be) Robert Aitken recalls not understanding a word Suzuki was saying!

From ’51 to ’53 he gave a famous series of Open Lectures at Columbia University, where he deeply influenced John Cage. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg tried to impress Suzuki, but Suzuki was not impressed by them in turn. According to Roshi Aitken, the only one of the beats who really understood what Suzuki was about was Gary Snyder; the rest used Suzuki’s teachings as a springboard to do their own thing.

At the Eranos Conference in Switzerland in 1953-4, Suzuki met and influenced Jung, Heidegger, and Jaspers.

Later Suzuki lived in Boston, and because so many people were equating LSD experiences and satori, decided — at the age of 85 — to experiment with drugs. Suzuki’s conclusion? The two experiences are quite different.

After retiring from Columbia Suzuki returned finally to Japan, although he would still travel to conferences in the west. He kept fit into his 90s by walking. He complained that it was harder to concentrate, and that he could only work on a writing project for two hours (!) at a time without taking a break. Therefore he had to work on three projects simultaneously and he would switch to a new project when his mind began to flag.

Just before his 96th birthday he suffered from a strangulated intestine, and he died the next day. His secretary, a Japanese-American woman called Mihoko Okamura, said that there was “no demarcation line” between his life and his death: an appropriate comment given that Suzuki repeatedly pointed out that death is an illusion.

Suzuki was never an ordained monk, and he was not a historian of Buddhism in an academic sense. Nevertheless he was a significant contributor — perhaps the single most significant modern contributor — to Zen Buddhism and to Western Buddhism generally.

I was struck by the sheer age of most of the talking heads in A Zen Life. Many appeared to be in their 80s (at least) and it’s hard to imagine that many of them will be around in another ten years. These are cultural figures from another age — our teachers’ teachers — showing perhaps just how deeply embedded is the influence of D. T. Suzuki in the Western Buddhist world.

A Zen Life does an excellent job of outlining the wealth of connections that Suzuki established with prominent figures in western arts, psychology, and even within the Catholic church, and brings home the sheer depth of this gentle man’s influence. There is rare and remarkable footage and audio of Suzuki and his followers. From time to time the chronology skips around, and section titles would have helped maintain a sense of the main themes being covered, but these are minor reservations and I would recommend that anyone interested in this fascinating and seminal figure watch this video.

“A ZEN LIFE – D.T. Suzuki” (DVD: 77 minutes), Michael Goldberg, Executive Producer / Director, can be ordered at: www.martygrossfilms.com

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