At home with peace

Sogenji is a Rinzai Zen monastery in Okayama, Japan, in the midst of ancient hills and gentle forests of pine, chestnut and bamboo trees. This monastery is over 300 years old.

The big wooden central hall called Hondo is in line with the central path and with the smaller structure where the old golden statues of Bodhisattvas are seated. On to the left is the Zendo where the monks gather at four in the morning and again at six in the evening to practice their Zazen, a Buddhist meditation that involves just sitting with the awareness on breath.

Besides the daily routine, one week a month is kept aside for ‘just sitting’. In this special week, the nuns and the monks sit in meditation for almost 20 hours a day, getting up to do just the bare minimum. The energy this kind of meditation unleashes is then used in various kinds of work. The monks and nuns, besides everyday cleaning, washing and cooking, involve themselves in activities as varied as carpentry, pottery, tailoring, and building maintenance.

Great living master of Sogenji Monastery, Sodo Harada Roshi, defines Zazen as “the ability to return to a quiet place within, to let go of all of our external distractions and return to our original inner space.” He explains that only after one has learnt to sit in the right way can one think of entering into a meditative state.

Besides meditation Harada Roshi weaves other important rituals of Rinzai tradition into the lives of his students, including daily sutra chanting, susokkan (breathing), koan (‘past cases’), self study, samu (work), sesshin (intensive retreats), teisho (lectures by the teacher) and takuhatsu (alms receiving).

The Roshi (literally, ‘Teacher’) also meets the Okayama community. Early Sunday morning, people from places far and near and practice meditation under the his guidance. Later they share tea and ask questions relating to their spiritual as well as material life.

Sogenji offers all its inhabitants, ordained or non-ordained, ample opportunity to learn to live in joy and compassion.

Tea ceremony

The Japanese tea ceremony is an act of refined aesthetic sensibilities combined with almost sacred reverence for all those involved. I heard that the Master of the ceremony trains under a Grand Master for a long time to learn the subtle intricacies of tea making and presentation. The bowls are special and the tea powder is also special.

It is said that the full ceremony may take three to four hours. Before the tea is served the master, who may be male or female, may dwell on a range of themes not related to the material world — the season, the time of the day, carving on the bowl, flowers, arts or spirituality — and it may be dotted with long stretches of silence.

At Sogenji, we were received by the head nun, Chi San, in her parlour and the ceremony was an adapted version of the original. Chi San told us about the green tea powder that was prepared at the monastery and then she talked about the rituals involved in the process of drinking itself.

How to hold and turn the bowl, sip and bow down are prescribed. We had tea with Chi San, trying to follow her advice. This was an experience like Zen itself.

Behind the kitchen near the lake juxtaposed with the little Zen garden, is a huge cherry blossom tree. Its branches spread about in all directions in equal measure as if conveying the message of harmony and equality. The head nun commented that the cherry tree is not so much Zen-like as it draws attention to itself, catching the eye. The plum is more of a Zen tree.

Meals in the monastery

Lunch is the only formal meal; breakfast and dinner are informal. At lunch the Roshi joins the monks and nuns in the kitchen hall. Everyone eats in unison and in silence. When the Roshi gives a signal by clapping two wooden sticks, the food is passed down the line.

When the food platter reaches you, you first bow to it and then take the portion you want in your bowl, again bow and pass it down. Then you eat following the rhythm set by the master. Food will be passed on again. It will be passed on a third time when you are not supposed to take anything at all.

Everyone finishes eating with the Roshi In the end hot water is passed to pour into each bowl and then drink so there are no leftovers. The lesson is that you should have deep respect for the food you eat.

For a non resident the life at the monastery seems hard and disciplined. Though the discipline is an important facet, there are underlying elements of health, healing energy, compassion and love that vibrate within the air itself.

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Printable version | Jun 19, 2021 3:41:58 AM |

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