Meditating with Buddhist monks in Japan

Take to the mountains of Japan, where ascetic monks follow the ancient Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism – and teach Sanro programme participants the tricky art of sitting.

By Stephanie Cavagnaro
Published 18 Jul 2019, 09:54 BST, Updated 16 Mar 2021, 10:05 GMT
Buddhist monk praying inside a temple
Buddhist monk praying inside a temple.
Photograph by Getty Images

“Wake up!” orders a monk. The unholy hour is 3.30am. I fumble with blankets, stiff from sleeping on buckwheat seed-filled pillows and tatami mats. “Wake up please!” he repeats, even more loudly. It’s late October and the cold in my room is as startling as my human alarm clock.

Eihei-ji (‘the temple of eternal peace’) has no intention of leaving me in peace this morning. Set in cedar-covered mountains near Japan’s northwest coast, the 13th-century monastery is a centre for the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism. I’m here for the one-night Sanro programme, which offers the unique opportunity to learn the art of sitting.

I change out of my yukata robe into a jumper and jeans for a bracingly early session of zazen, or seated meditation. The night before, Reverend Taiken Yokoyama had explained the importance of allowing thoughts to pass without dwelling on them. “It’s not step-by-step meditation, which is easy to understand because there’s a goal,” he’d said. “Enlightenment is created by the condition of the moment, and we can only live in this moment. That’s why Dōgen said practice and enlightenment are one.”

Eihei-ji was founded in 1244 by Zen Master Dōgen. Today, it’s home to nearly 150 ascetic monks who devote themselves to his teachings. “Dōgen wrote how to practise each of our actions — even how to wash our teeth,” Reverend Yokoyama had told us. “This kind of teaching and this kind of life has created Japanese customs, from tea ceremonies to flower arrangement.”

My group of five walk single-file behind Taizen, a black-garbed monk, towards the zendo (sitting hall). “In that place, you can’t create a single sound, even clothing or walking,” he whispers. Following a series of bows, we approach a raised wooden platform in the dimly lit room. In a similar space within the monastery, trainee monks eat, sleep and meditate on these unyielding surfaces. I sit on a plump cushion to more easily assume the half lotus position before spinning clockwise to face a wall, remembering some of the Sōtō school’s teachings: sitting upright and holding a 45-degree downward gaze.

Zazen begins with the toll of a bell. I strive to just sit, but I’m hungry. The night before, we’d eaten a modest shōjin ryōri vegan meal, served in a series of lacquered bowls: miso, pickles, stewed vegetables, fried tofu and black beans. Sitting in silence, I caught myself counting the beans as I picked each one up with chopsticks: 21.5.

I study the texture of the wall and wriggle uneasily when my legs scream for mercy. Unsure of where to focus, I close my eyes, then wake with a jolt as I nearly fall backwards. “Many thoughts are coming and going,” Reverend Yokoyama had explained the night before. “But we don’t try to grasp them, just leave them as is.”

Gradually, I’m getting it. Thoughts pass in a trance-like stupor. Am I rocking? My lower half numbs. A monk walks behind bearing a kyōsaku, a stick used to strike sleepy sitters. How long has it been? Twenty minutes? As if to answer to my question, a series of gongs and drums sound, bringing our 40-minute session to an end.

Outside, the morning rain has stopped and dawn tickles the tiled roofs and crimson maples. “Zen is quite special because you don’t need all the bows and prayers to reach nirvana,” a Singaporean Buddhist in my group declares as we leave. “True Zen can be eating or walking.” I think of my 21.5 beans. Enlightenment has been here the whole time. I just had to notice.

Published in the July/August 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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