In all this time I’ve been living in Ishikawa Prefecture, I only made it to our neighbouring prefecture of Fukui at the end of January. It was a mini Irish gathering as two of us came down from Kanazawa to stay with a fellow citizen and we took in some of the sights. Fukui is quite long and stretches along the coast from Ishikawa to Kyoto Prefecture, and the north-eastern part is wide and mountainous in the interior. We were in the northern part where Fukui city is (so we didn’t visit the town of Obama in the south) and we went to see Eiheji Temple in the mountains.
Eiheji is a large temple complex that was founded in 1244 by the monk Dogen who established the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. After visiting the temple I watched Zen – The Life of Zen Master Dogen a 2009 biopic which I thought was pretty good – the costumes and scenery were beautiful, the acting was relatively restrained and the story of his life was quite interesting.
Eiheji is a training monastery, and I saw plenty of black-robed monks when I was there because during our visit the temple was having a fire drill (only for the residents though, we visitors didn’t have to take part, which was a little strange). The temple had many covered corridors and stairways to connect the different buildings, and we could see that some sections were being gradually rebuilt and renewed.
The first time I heard of the temple was from the book Eat Sleep Sit by Kaoru Nonomura, a 30-year-old salaryman who quit his job in Tokyo to spend a year as a trainee monk. I read it a few years ago, and when I recently looked up some reviews I realized I had forgotten about the verbal and physical abuse that’s meted out to the monks. My main memory is of the harsh routine that they follow – of cleaning and sitting, and of never having enough sleep or food. The rules for every part of their day, even down to how they wash themselves, have to be followed with tedious precision. I was reminded of the tea ceremony, where the same precise movements have to be executed with apparent ease and elegance. I think the reason for it is, that if you can manage to practice a pattern of actions until it becomes automatic, it allows the mind to be free from thinking about the next step and simply be in the moment.
I like that in the end [spoiler alert] he doesn’t achieve what we expect of enlightenment and become a wholly new person, but his experiences make him more aware of certain things. At the end of the book, he looks back and tries to think about how it has changed him
“Now, when a mosquito lands on me, I hesitate for a second before killing it.
I no longer eat more than necessary.
I no longer think about things more deeply than necessary.
I have become capable of tears. Once I told someone, “A man who can cry is a lucky man.” I never could, before. I used to think what a relief it must be to let yourself go and cry, but I just couldn’t. Now I can cry in great gulping sobs.
That’s about it, I think. Then again, I could be completely wrong.”
― Nonomura Kaoru, Eat Sleep Sit
Before Christmas I read the book The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen, which is an account of his journey in the Himalayas after the death of his wife, with his friend who was studying the Himalayan blue sheep/goats. The factual account of his trip is really impressive, because it’s no easy feat to travel through the Himalayas, and his philosophical musings are honest, not pretentious. He was a practitioner of zen and this trip was pilgrimage for him. What I liked about this also, was that although he experienced moments of enlightenment, such as in the quote below, he also describes at the end of the book, being cold, tired and grumpy as he descended, and wondering where had his enlightened experience gone. I think it’s impossible to retain the frame of mind one gets as a hermit in the mountains, or a monk in a temple, while living in society, but I think it is possible to have moments that enrich routines and put our lives into perspective.
“The secret of the mountain is that the mountains simply exist, as I do myself: the mountains exist simply, which I do not. The mountains have no “meaning,” they are meaning; the mountains are. The sun is round. I ring with life, and the mountains ring, and when I can hear it, there is a ringing that we share. I understand all this, not in my mind but in my heart, knowing how meaningless it is to try to capture what cannot be expressed, knowing that mere words will remain when I read it all again, another day.”
“In this very breath that we take now lies the secret that all great teachers try to tell us…the present moment. The purpose of mediation practice is not enlightenment; it is to pay attention even at unextraordinary times, to be of the present, nothing-but-the-present, to bear this mindfulness of now into each event of ordinary life.”
― Peter Matthiessen, The Snow Leopard