Life as a lay practitioner in a Zen Temple

In 1990, I entered Bukkokuji, a Zen temple in Obama City, Japan. This temple was in the heartland of Soto Zen Buddhism which had been introduced from China 1,200 years ago.

Like many temples it was at the foot of a mountain hidden among residential houses. It is then run by Harada Tangen Roshi (roshi: teacher), a Zen priest, and 20 training monks, half of which are Japanese and half foreigners.

Like most Zen temples it has a main gate, main hall, meditation hall and some support buildings.

Temples are quiet places, and in general supported by the local community. Traditionally, to enter a temple as a training monk one is to make enquiry at the gate and ask for acceptance. The routine is to reject the trainee. This usually lasts for three to four days. During the night he is given isolated lodging in an unused part of the temple, after which he continues to ask for acceptance the next day. Because Bukkokuji accepts foreigners and pay trainees no such hard routine is necessary. An introduction and phone call is all that was necessary.

People lodge together in large traditional tatami (grass mat) rooms. Each person has a space no larger perhaps than a single bed. All belongings are kept next to the bed.

From spring to autumn the daily routine starts at 5:20am. A monk runs around the temple ringing a loud bell. We wash and prepare for a short run and stretching. After stretching we meditate (zazen). Each meditation session is about 40 minutes long. After meditation we do morning recitations. And then breakfast is served. By breakfast it is after 7am.

During the serving of breakfast recitations continue. The typical breakfast (and other meals) consists of rice, soup, beans vegetables and pickled vegetables. Each person is given a personal set of three bowls, chopsticks and a cloth to wrap and store them, to use in the course of their stay at the temple. All meals are eaten in silence. Seconds are allowed.

After all members finish eating we wash our bowls. One-quarter of a cup of hot water is all we use. With a pickle we save from the meal as a sponge we wash all bowls and chopsticks. The hot water, now a kind of broth, can either be drunk or put into a bucket to be later given to vegetation outside.

Before we start work (samu) in the morning we have a short rest or do personal chores like brushing terry or washing clothes. Work in general is to maintain the temple. It could be anything from cleaning, working in the field, to clear out the septic tanks for use as fertiliser. We have a rest then before lunch. After lunch we do more work. And then we have tea where the Roshi-sama (as the master is called by his students) will join us give a talk to encourage us in our goal of enlightenment.

Once in a while Roshi-sama will hold give private guidance (dokusan) to the trainees.

And then before dinner we have evening recitations. After dinner we rest before three sessions of meditation. By the end of mediation it is 9pm. All light go out and all sleep.

This routine is for four days. On the fifth day bath is prepared and generally no work is done but meditation continues. On the 21st of each month a public lecture (teisho) is given by Roshi-sama. Intermittently, monks go out to beg for alms (takuhatsu). This is done as spiritual training as well.

In December, for eight days until the 8th (Buddha’s Enlightenment Day) a special session of meditation (sesshin) is done. Apart from some general cleaning most of the time is spent meditating. Sleep is limited to 3 to 4 hours. And private guidance is given regularly.

2 thoughts on “Life as a lay practitioner in a Zen Temple”

  1. Hi Warren,
    I wish I hadn’t missed this scope, many questions.
    How do the community’s treat the Buddhist today? Seems so many fake monk’s out there trying to get money from other’s..kind of messed up the reputation of the many good!
    Buddhism is the 4th largest religion in the world..that’s huge! I actually think if it were possible for me to live the way they do, think and believe they way they do, I would. (If only I could) One of the beliefs is we create our own suffering, and the path out of suffering is on us. We have to change our perception of ourselves, and the world too. I mean how can anyone not understand this.
    We are such an egotistical people, if we could just recognise that we aren’t perfect.
    Omgoodness..wouldn’t it be awesome to achieve nirvana!! I was a teenager, I was such a free spirit, wanted to save the world, save every sick and unwanted animal I saw. I remember telling my mother I wanted to become I lived in Bloomington Indiana at the time, alot of Buddhist around. This town was so diverse, I loved it. Still is, not much has changed.
    I’m not sure where the women fit in in the buddhist community. Are there even woman who are Buddhist, or is this against the rules? Funny, I don’t even know.
    Yes, I believe in God. In alot of ways, the way the two think, and also in someways believe are the same..the Christian and the Buddhist I mean. The Christians who live the proper life I mean!! If only we could all think, live, eat and breath goodness in all ways…wouldn’t that be a better way! Who wouldn’t want that?
    It’s sad, the world unfortunately is filled with evil people. So do sad!
    I myself prefer to live the life of love and peace.
    Sorry Warren, I’m a bit all over the place, I’m good at mind goes on circles sometimes. I think of too many things at once, write it down then it may not make sense.
    Good night Warren
    Be well!



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