A few days ago I traveled to Chichibu, a few hours outside of Tokyo, to do a ’shukubo’ — temple stay — at Taiyoji Temple, run by one monk, Sotatsu Asami, a rotating crew of volunteers, and four dogs.
Now, I chose the temple because I thought it offered takigyo, a type of meditation that involves standing underneath a waterfall. Apparently I need to read better. They used to do takigyo…like two hundreds year ago. Whoops. But, they were one of the first (maybe only?) temples to allow women to perform this kind of meditation during the Edo period, so, kudos to them for gender equality.
Nestled in the Chichibu mountains, the temple provided the perfect backdrop for finding your zen. Plus, unlike the other temple stay I had done in Kyoto, here the sensei Asami, really gave us a full Buddhist immersion with the help of volunteers who cooked and translated and made everyone feel welcome.
First up: Sutra tracing. We traced a sutra in order to learn about “ku" by experiencing “ku.” The concept of “ku” sounds a tiny bit difficult to understand in just one day, but from what I gathered it's something like, “empty but emptiness; nothing, yet still something.” By tracing an ancient sutra few of us could read, even the Japanese, would help us to experience a form of mindfulness — by fully concentrating on each stroke we could maybe, hopefully, though honestly not likely, forget our thoughts, and ourselves, for just a second.
Second Buddhist experience: Chanting in the chapel. Or in my case, kind of humming along pretending to understand what the @#$% was going on and hoping my ankles would stop feeling numb. Those who could read Japanese followed alone in beautifully folded pamphlets to repeat what sounded like monosyllabic words in a steady staccato rhythm.
Next up: Vegan dinner. Actually not that bad! After basically having really heavy pork based ramen any day I wanted (aka, every day), my stomach probably needed nothing but veggies. I’m not entirely certain what all we ate, but the eggplant was delicious.
Final group activity for the night: Teaching. Master Asami explained more about “ku” and introduced a new word called “mu” that is loosely translated as “not” or “nothing” — basically it’s a negation. For those who know more about Zen Buddhism, the concept of “mu” has a lot more to it, but for us beginners, we focused on the use of “mu” to take away senses in order to experience “ku”.
“Try to imagine a state of nothingness,” the Master instructed. “It is hard right? How do you know you are in this room? Your senses tell you so. You see the temple. You hear the chanting. You smell the incense. You taste the vegan food. You feel the cushion underneath you. Now, try, to take away each sense. No seeing, no hearing, no smelling, no tasting, no feeling. That is what ‘mu’ does. When you’ve taken everything away, you are in ‘ku.’”
I don’t know… ku sounds hard. And a it try-hard when I explain it.
After the teaching I got to speaking, briefly, with the Zen master about the temples I had visited and about the temple puppy, Yuyu.
Zen: “You like dogs?”
Me: “Yes! I love dogs.”
Zen: “Maybe tomorrow you could walk the dogs.”
Me: “Oh my gosh I would love to!”
Milli-san, who helped translate: “Wow, that’s very lucky he offered!”
I might never get “ku” or “mu” but I would at least get to play with “yuyu!”
Sunrise: We were informed the sun would rise at 6am, which, honestly, sounded a bit off to me. Having just traveled up and down Japan, the latest the sun rose was mayyyyybeeee 5:30am right now. I somewhat mistakenly awoke at 4:30am (okay really I just didn’t want to miss the chance to walk the dogs), and I started to get ready. But wait, what, it’s already light outside…? Turns out, “sun rise” meant the sun “rising” over the mountain, which, as it turns out, is incredibly difficult to photograph without a filter so I do not have that photograph.
What I do have is so much better.
I give you two dogs carrying one stick and third trying to join in.
This temple had not one, not two, not three, but four golden labradors. Three youngins and one papa, who couldn’t be arsed to do anything and I loved him. Oh and his name? Zen-ju. No. Lie.
I know that playing with dogs in a mountainside temple doesn’t count as meditation, but really, I think it should.
After playing with them, or sorry, walking them, the rest of Day Two’s activities started.
First up: Chanting in another chapel. Okay now this was amazing but I didn’t video it. We huddled into a small room with 700 year old Buddha statues. The master then chanted and furiously beat a drum so loud we could hear nothing but the rhythmic deep sounds.
Next up: Zazen meditation in the zendo (meditation hall) whose windows offer views rival the best of nature paintings. During this practice I opted to try the Keisaku / Kyosaku stick. It’s got a bit of mythology surrounding it. My Airbnb host in Nagasaki had told me “Zen meditation is so hard! They even beat you with a stick!”
Well, damn, I’m intrigued. (Can you tell I was raised Catholic?) Here’s how it goes.
“On TV, people talk about the Keisaku like it’s punishment for sleepy monks. That’s not the point. It is only supposed to help you meditate. Only do it if you want,” the master tells us. “I’ll walk by you, and if you want it, put your hands in the prayer pose.”
Tthe woman next to me signals to the master she would like the Keisaku. First he taps her back gently three times. Not bad. Then WHACK WHACK WHACK. And again, tap tap tap followed by WHACK WHACK WHACK.
“THAT IS SO LOUD” is the only thing I can think. I have about 5 seconds to decide if I want to do that too.
I go for it.
With the help of my neighbor I understand I am supposed to bow to the stick (seriously?!), then bend down as far as I can. Tap, tap, tap. Gulp. Then WHACK WHACK WHACK between my spine and my right shoulder blade. And then the stick moves left two inches and again tap tap tap then WHACK WHACK WHACK. Now I sit up and bow again with prayer hands as the zen master presents the stick and bows himself.
Holy @#$% shit no wonder there’s a mythology around this!
Ask to get beaten and then thank the stick that beat you? Yeah okay sure no one in film/tv/media will ever try to dramatize that.
Though, that said, honestly, I kind of get why smacking practice is a thing. Sitting still in half lotus position with no chair backing gets hard on your back. You start feeling the back strain and then you start thinking about it and buh-bye mindfulness. But get beaten by a stick and your back is suddenly really warm and strangely doesn’t hurt in the same way it did and you don’t seem to have any thoughts any longer.
Not that bad.
The French lady later asked me why I did it. “Did you think you don’t meditate correctly?” she asked. Me, “Nope, just wanted to try it.” I don’t think she found my matter of fact answer satisfactory.
After the meditation we had breakfast. Honestly, I think I preferred the Keisaku stick to the breakfast. It was decent, just not really what I’d want for breakfast. That said, I would have eaten dog food just to enjoy this view.
Oh and speaking of dogs… I somehow charmed the master to letting us take the dogs out again. This time I was joined by two of the volunteers and we ran up and down the road with the dogs. We threw sticks with them. We chased them. We lured them out of muddy waters with massive sticks.
I went to temple to find zen, only to find Zen-ju, his three pups, and my own little slice of zen.