Japan 00, p4

Zen retreat in Shizuoka

Sunday September 3

Before I flew to Japan, Anne had found info online about a Zazen retreat in a temple near the city of Shizuoka. She sent it to me and asked if I would be interested. I hadn't the faintest idea what Zazen was, but I took one look at the scenery and I wanted to be there.

Now we were waiting for the rest of the group at the Tokyo train station, ready to embark on the adventure. The people who showed up were a truly varied group Japanese, Australian, Canadian, French, German, Scottish and Irish. Sensei Gudo Wafu Nishijima, who organized the retreat, was standing out with his monk's dress.

From Shizuoka we took taxis to the temple of Tokein. Sensei treated us to lunch in a very traditional restaurant where we all introduced each other. The temple was right nearby, a beautiful home-scale series of structures emerging from the mountain forest.

The temple on the right and the men's wing on the left
The ablution fountain

 In the gink├ón we abandoned our shoes, which we would not need for 3 days, and we started to get settled. There was an opening ceremony after which veteran students instructed us in the protocol for Zazen and meals. We also had to be trained in the folding and unfolding of our oyoki, the eating kit consisting of 3 bowls, 2 napkins and a pair of chopsticks. The full ceremonial that accompanies meals and Zazen sessions is detailed in this article. Here I'll just say that it was an experience in Japanese ritual details, just like the inside of the temple which I couldn't help but sketch at the same time as I was taking notes during lectures.

During one meal, the main dish involved tofu, which I had never seen before. I was gazing at it intensely, trying to figure out if this was grilled fish and if it was, why it looked so mistreated, when Anne whispered in my ear “As long as it’s dead!” I had never suffered so much trying to stifle a howl of laughter.

Meal ceremonial: holding the bowls up
Those who were waiting on the others eat last.

 Zazen is a state where both the mind and the body are at rest, allowing us to come in contact with our inner truth. In Zazen one is supposed to neither think nor feel, and in that sense it is different from meditation, as our Sensei insisted. The bottom line of the lectures on Buddhism were that one has to live in the moment because past and future do not exist; as for Zazen, it was critical to keep one's spine's straight to allow for proper circulation of energy. As a result, by the time the retreat was over, us students had a rallying cry: "Live the moment and keep your back straight!"

The zazen-do. To the left is the Sensei's zafu, on a purple cushion.

As serious as this retreat was, I remember it as a hilarious three days. It was unlucky of me to be so prone to laugh attacks while in such an environment where silence was encouraged. During one meal, we were brought a dish of something I was unable to identify. It looked like fish, and yet not. I was examining my bowl with utmost perplexity when Anne whispered to me: "As long as it's dead!"
Nothing in the world is as difficult as desperately trying not to laugh when you're nearly bursting with it. Except doing it twice in one day...
During that evening's Zazen session, where Sensei was seated right behind me, I was distracted by a small thump to my right...

I also had the surprise of my life the first evening when I discovered the full meaning of the term "communal bath". As I was in front of the bathroom wondering how we were going to take turns, I noticed that the rest of the women weren't even wondering – they had taken all their clothes off and were stepping in. 'Uhhhhhhhhhhh... oh what the heck...'
I survived.

The palm of oddity goes without a doubt to the Toilet Shrine. Just as its name indicates, it is an enshrined toilet seat. I looked in to make sure I wasn't being made fun of, and indeed, I found myself staring at a traditional toilet seat in painted porcelain...

The toilet shrine
Sensei during the morning work
The students with Sensei and the temple Abbott