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Andrew Atkeison on his
trip to Rinsoin
Andrew on his time in Kyoto further down
On his experience at Eiheiji even further
posted October 22, 2015
It was a bit easier to get the Shinkansen (bullet train) from Tokyo to Shizuoka and then a local train to Yaizu than I had thought. I got to Rinsoin in the early afternoon. Hoitsu roshi was smiling and hanging out a window waving to me when I arrived. His wife, Chitose, was on the porch … waving also. I got out of the taxi and bowed …. very deeply several times … they both bowed back and he was laughing …. they invited me in …. I sat down with Hoitsu in the tatami reception room in front of his office and tried to talk with him for a little … he and his wife really liked the painting I brought … and soon she had fixed me lunch. They had just eaten so they talked with me as I ate. We talked about his American students mostly … my first teacher Mel Weitsman and a little about Bill Kwong and Sonoma Mountain. He asked about Blanche Hartman and how she was doing, he was concerned about her health. A little bit later I asked him if he knew Ed Brown who had lay ordained me and was Mel Weitsman’s student. He said “oh?” … making signs with his hands indicating a loaf of bread … “you mean the bread teacher, the bread master?" We shared a laugh over that because Ed is a fantastic cook. Later Hoitsu's wife Chitose took me into the guest room and was talking … talking …. she is pretty good at English so we talked about a lot of stuff including David Chadwick, his new book [Zen is Right Here in Japanese translation] was there in the room … she said he was funny …. I could tell she really appreciated David …. she kept prying out details so I finally explained to her that Tozen Akiyama roshi was my teacher now. She was surprised to learn that Tozen is a Soto priest … because obviously he hadn’t told her that detail when he had called there to arrange my stay.
The temple was very old (500 years) and fairly big and run down. It has several magnificent old buildings that are not in use. Hoitsu said it was originally a Tendai temple up until about 200 years ago. It is located up at the top of a steep mountainous ravine, too narrow to be considered a valley. There is a cemetery that starts about a 1/2 mile down the ravine and runs along side the narrow winding road towards the temple before you actually get to the entrance. The road is only one lane with a dangerously deep drainage ditch on one side. The site of the Temple is carved out of the mountain with tall ancient stone retaining walls to keep the mountain in place. A bamboo forest surrounds the steep slope above the temple. A stream flows down on both sides … and some of this water is used for the 2 rock gardens. The gardens are really neglected … haven’t been maintained in years … and full of mud and mosquitoes. There were few screens and no locks on any of the temple doors … as Hoitsu pointed out … to keep my valuables with me at all times … but there wasn’t a soul around … it seemed like an un-necessary warning so I didn’t bother to do it … but maybe he just wanted to err on the side of precaution.
The other American guest from Zen Center arrived several hours later so I had some quiet time to enjoy the atmosphere of the temple and the rock garden in front of the guest room. The silence was profound … I almost felt like I was having flashbacks … it seemed incredible that after so many years … I had finally arrived at this wonderful peaceful place.
The other American visitor arrived by taxi later in the afternoon… he was a little younger than I and he seemed well traveled. He made a better effort at speaking Japanese than I did and he spoke well enough to be chatty and gregarious. Chitose liked to talk and he kept her entertained in the kitchen while she prepared the evening meal. He told me that he used to teach English as a second language and showed me an excellent Japanese English Dictionary called the Langenschiedts. His trip to Japan had been conceived of as a modern retracing of the ancient poet Basho's path.
The day I arrived, Hoitsu disappeared for several hours late in the afternoon … when he came back to the temple … he was staggering and laughing … obviously he had been drinking in town … I don’t know how he drove back to the temple … the road is so dangerous and narrow. That evening he served us each a beer with dinner. He did it in such a way …. as to pointedly and silently defy his wife’s wishes … and at the same time to test us American Zen students as to our values. Hoitsu’s son Shungo and his wife Kumi and their kids also had dinner with us. It was fun …. the TV was on most of the time and the kids played noisily around us competing for attention. There was a platter of small fish that Hoitsu demonstrated how to eat … whole … bones and all. I was used to that way of eating small fish having lived in the South Pacific, but the other American Zen student kind of gagged on the bones. He asked why they didn’t eat vegetarian, a question I was wondering about too. Hoitsu explained that in a home temple, unlike a training temple, they eat whatever is given to them as donations. Yaizu is near the ocean so they have a lot of fishermen who are part of their congregation. I had noticed a lot of tea plants growing alongside the road on the way in and asked if they ever received green tea as a donation. They said sometimes … but only at harvest time … but not usually since green tea was such a valuable commodity. …. Hoitsu, after seeing how the other visiting student gagged on the fish, began talking about certain foods that westerners have trouble with. He brought out some kind of fermented soy bean product that is usually served for breakfast. The stuff was so slimy that when you picked up a soybean and separated it from the rest … long strings of slime followed the chopsticks and hung there suspended. Since I don’t drink very often, I was getting a little buzz from the beer which loosened me up socially so I volunteered to try some … Hoitsu was pleased … and the taste wasn’t so bad but the texture was truly repulsive …. It was obviously something that one had to develop a taste for at an early age, but I didn’t give away any outward sign as to how unpleasant it was. I said “mmmm, dai suki “… which means I like it a lot.
Chitose, speaks pretty good English and does these beautiful Ikebana type flower arrangements that are placed around the temple entry … some of them about 1 meter tall. Shungo's wife Kumi also speaks a little English and is just as outgoing as Hoitsu’s wife, the two of them were such a team. I think she is training the younger woman in the duties of a temple wife … she explained to me … that a temple wife must always be welcoming people … always giving … always with outstretched arms … she was so enlightened … she didn’t need to do any zazen with us men.
We sat one period of zazen the following morning … at 6 AM … Hoitsu said 6 was late …. and laughed, he is such a jolly man. He had a nice group of guys who came in the morning to sit … and he had a Soto English manual of the chants in Romanji for us Americans, it didn’t help much though … it was hard to keep up with the chanting. That morning after breakfast his wife brought out a brochure to show me to confirm what she was telling me … that Hoitsu roshi used to be the Chief Executive Operating Officer of Eiheiji … he, of course, knows Mr. Kuronagi sensei, who will be my contact at Eiheiji on the 22nd.
When I finally arrived in Kyoto the next afternoon it was hot and smoggy … I was totally exhausted. I couldn’t find a cheap hotel room the first hour … I kept walking around looking till I was too tired and exasperated to walk any further, so I just gave up. I sat down in the shade on a sidewalk utility box … opened my bag and ate a couple of granola bars that I had with me and drank the rest of the water I had. People looked curiously at me as they hustled by … soon I started to feel a little better … so I began walking again … being careful not to loose my bearings and always keeping the train station on one side of my circle …. not long afterwards I found this hotel … and it is only 7,000 yen per night ($65) … I got 4 days here in this hotel for the price of one day in the 1st hotel I found in Tokyo, so I must be getting better. This one has a great view of the Kyoto Tower and a clean room … with an 8th floor balcony that I can step out on … the height kind of gives me vertigo … but it is handy to see how the weather is before I go out and I can see the train station from here.
Today in Kyoto, I was feeling much better after a western style buffet breakfast at the hotel. It was about $13 or 1400 yen which seems expensive compared to the noodle shops, which are plentiful everywhere. Last night I ate at a noodle shop just around the corner from the hotel because I didn’t want to get lost. You can have a decent meal in a noodle shop for about $5. The way it works is there is a vending machine with pictures of each dish they sell. All explanations are usually in Japanese so you just have to wing it and go by the pictures, which sometimes can be deceiving. You insert your currency and the selections all light up, then you push the button on the selection you want and the machine returns your change and gives you a ticket which you present at the counter. The machines are actually a good way to get change for 10,000 yen bills. I had pretty good luck with my selection except that … the little red topping on the rice turned out to be roe. Being an ex fisherman … I always remember using roe as fish bait when I was a kid … so the smell is kind of nauseating. After the first bite, I took the chopsticks and scooped all the roe off the top of the rice and poured the whole rice dish into the soup bowl and … wow … it was much better … and very little smell or taste of roe left. I looked around to see if any one noticed but no one was looking at me or seemed to care … apparently formal manners are somewhat suspended when eating at noodle shops. The food is light and insubstantial though and doesn’t stay with you very long … after eating at a noodle shop I sometimes get hungry again in just a couple of hours.
The next morning after breakfast I decided to walk a few blocks to a giant temple complex that I had passed by when I first got into town. The temple grounds were immense with beautiful topiary and stone walls. The magnificent roofs towered high above their surroundings … and the ancient stone work and gates were reminiscent of samurai movies.
There are a lot of westerners in Kyoto many of them are European. I noticed one young couple at the temple taking pictures. Mostly it seemed like she was taking pictures of him and he was going through some kind of martial arts routine as she snapped photos. The whole thing just seemed so pathetically egotistical and shallow, so totally devoid of any idea about what these temples were about. I guess he hadn’t noticed or understood the meaning of the large sign at the entrance that proclaimed in both Japanese and English … “Welcome to the home of the Buddha Dharma”.
I took off my shoes and went inside one of the huge temples that other people were going into. The scale of the steps and wooden pillars made the people seem tiny by comparison. The incredible peace and quiet of the interior was palpable. I sat down inside for about a half hour and just soaked it all in by osmosis. Later I walked around till I passed an information booth that was staffed by a beautiful girl who spoke wonderful English with a British accent. She told me that the name of the temple was Hongwanji [that’s an archaic Romanization – Honganji now – but obviously the temple is using the older method]… the main temple of Jodo Shinshu. I showed her my rakusu and told her that we had the Emanji temple in Sebastopol … she was impressed that I was a Buddhist and she looked it up in a book they have that lists all the Jodo Shinshu temples in North America. I thought there were only two branches of Shin Buddhism, Jodo Shu and Jodo Shinshu, but as it turns out there are 10 sects of Jodo Shinshu and Emanji must be a different sect than Hongwanji because it wasn’t in the book. As it turns out, Jodo shu is not shin Buddhsim although I think they both are Pure land Buddhism.
On the way back from Hongwanji I passed a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) that I had noticed the night before. There was an android geisha girl seated in the lobby near the window. The guy at the reception desk said it would be OK if I spoke with her and he told me to ask her the weather … her name was Alexis … when I said her name she lit up, literally … and responded with the weather for New York in English, I guess she didn’t realize I was from San Francisco. It was pretty cool.
That evening I was really hungry so for dinner I decided to try this traditional barbeque place that I had seen earlier across the street from the noodle shop. I had the expectation that I would get a generous meal with some kind of salad or side dish like a rib restaurant in the US … but that wasn’t to be. The menu wasn’t exactly clear but I could tell that it was going to be somewhat expensive so I just ordered chicken for 800 yen or about $7.50 which would be in line with the noodle meal I had the night before. The service seemed slow .. first the girl brought out some charcoal and placed it in a brassier in front of my place at the counter and went away. It sat there for a while … and so I tested it to see if it was hot but it wasn’t. Next she brought out some hot charcoal and placed it on top of the cold briquettes that she had brought out earlier. The whole thing began to smoke as the charcoal below was ignited. Finally she brought out a small platter with about a dozen tiny pieces of raw chicken. She just left it there as if I knew what to do. After seeing that there was to be no further service or explanation I did the obvious. Taking a pair of stainless steel tongs that were on the counter I began to barbeque the raw chicken myself. The process took a while. It was like trying to cook while camping. Slowly it began to dawn on me … that the business plan of a restaurant of this type was that a customer would order several platters of different meats to barbeque along with some beer or wine to make the process more fun and less tedious. That way a big tab could be run up as one got more and more inebriated waiting for the food to cook … now it made more sense how they could make enough money to turn a profit and stay in business.
After leaving the barbeque place I was still hungry. On the way back to the hotel I decided to check out a store I had noticed across the street from the hotel. I had been thinking that it looked like some kind of video game place, an assumption I made because there were so many bicycles parked out front, but it was a super market and quite large actually. There was so much wonderful looking food inside but I couldn’t tell what most of it was because of the packaging and the fact that all the labels were in Japanese. The irony didn’t escape me … here I was hungry as a bear … and here was all this delicious and potentially satisfying food … but there was a big void of lack of understanding between me and being able to satisfy my hunger with the food. Finally I recognized some Haagen-DCazs ice cream bars that were not too expensive so I bought one and ate it outside the store. I decided to walk down to the other end of the street that I hadn’t been to yet and there was a Circle K store, similar to a 7/11. I found an inexpensive peanut candy bar there and ate it outside. Now I was beginning to feel a little more satiated by topping off the traditional Japanese barbeque with junk food.
I had good luck today … I think I found a Japanese language school that I like here … I went over to their building by taxi this afternoon and they spent some time with me explaining the course and showing me the student residences … they offer short term intensive courses throughout the year … from 2 weeks up to 2 months. It is not so expensive … I can afford it.
The Shinkansen train from Kyoto arrived in Fukui-shi around midday. The train station was really low key and kind of sleepy. I was happy to find there was a tourist advice booth right there in the station. Though the attendant was away when I arrived she quickly appeared and gave me all the advice I needed to catch the bus to Eiheiji ... she then took the extra trouble and walked with me over to the ticket office to show me how to buy my bus ticket. That is the way it is in Japan, People will go out of their way to help you. Most busses require you to have a ticket in advance except for city busses.
The bus ride from Fuqui shi to Eiheiji takes about 45 minutes. It is a pleasant ride as the road winds from the flat lands into the foothills of a large mountain range. As the bus begins nearing Eiheiji there are big road signs posted along the way confirming that the road leads to Eiheiji. On the final approach there are many little Jizos and other statuary and shrines along side the road ... all appear to be neatly attended.
The bus lets you off in down town Echizen which is just a little strip of tourist shops leading up to Eiheiji. As I walked past the shops I got the first glimpse of Eiheiji emerging out of the surrounding forest. The site is located in the mountains on the western side of the main island in Fukui prefecture, not far from the Sea of Japan. It is an area that has a lot of fog and humidity. There is green moss growing on all the stonework and statuary that is exposed to the elements. The scale of the buildings and magnificence of the surroundings makes the many visitors and tourists swarming around the walkway seem small by comparison.
I arrived in the middle of the day and the grounds were busy with visitors. People come there to celebrate birthdays and special occasions. I walked around the grounds for a while taking it all in. I had heard about Eiheiji for over 40 years and there I finally was, it seemed like destiny. I found the proper entry way and arrived at the reception area for guests who have reservations where I exchanged my shoes for slippers and presented my official letter of invitation. Two English-speaking trainees, Ryuho and Yuie were assigned to show me my quarters for the evening.
After I cleared reception and the staff had taken care of my luggage, Ryuho and Yuie took me on a grand tour. The first place they took me to was the Mountain Gate (Sammon). It is a quiet and very old area of the complex that is partially walled off from entry by tourists and visitors. Only the trainees may enter this gate and it may be entered only 2 times in their lifetime … once when they come and once when they graduate. This Mountain Gate is where the prospective trainees arrive in February in the dead of winter when it is freezing cold and snowing. The previous day they have walked a long distance to Eiheiji, begging along the way in traditional traveling monk gear with rope sandals (waraji). When they arrive they stand in front of the mountain gate for a full day in the snow … waiting to be accepted. The ones who do not give up and are still standing there at nightfall are allowed to enter the sanctuary through the Mountain Gate into the walls of Eiheiji.
In front and off to one side of the gate there are 4 huge statues of very fierce looking deities … the 4 heavenly kings (shi ten) from Indian Buddhism. They have fierce looks to drive away the obstruction for training. Next to the gate on one side there is a calligraphic sign that reads, … "Eiheiji is a family.. The family is very strict. If you are interested in fame and riches you are not allowed to enter this gate". On the other side there is another huge sign that reads, "This gate has no doors, no lock, no key and no chains. It is always open … but if you have ambition or are seeking power you cannot enter here". Directly beyond the inside of the gate there is a third large sign … inscribed with the words of Dogen Zenji … "This is Kichi do Mountain (Eiheiji). Trainees are all Buddha who come from this mountain. That is why this mountain is excellent! All people who come here can be Buddha! This bond between people who come from this mountain is called ren".
Maybe sometimes in America, we think of American Zen and Japanese Zen as if there is a difference, a separation, and a division between us who practice this ancient way. After visiting Eiheiji I learned that is just a misperception, we are all joined by the bond of ren.
Outside the mountain gate hangs a very large densho bell. This bell is rung 4 times a day and on New Years Eve it is rung108 times. This symbolizes the banishment of the 108 impure desires
The next morning after entering the Mountain Gate, the initiates must begin sitting 7 days of tangaryo (continuous zazen without out formal breaks). Tangaryo is done just inside the entryway to the Sodo, or priests training hall. It is called sodo instead of zendo because the trainees must eat, sleep and sit zazen there on the same tatami that they are originally assigned after completing tangaryo. They continue to live on that same tatami mat for the rest of their training, which may extend to 4 years. There are only 200 trainees at any given time and only a trainee who has sat tangaryo or a recognized roshi may enter beyond the doors to the Sodo. Any visitor, unless they are recognized as having received formal dharma transmission in the approved way of the Japanese Soto traditions will not be allowed to go beyond the entry.
Since Eiheiji is built on a mountainside, inside the complex there are many covered walkways with long flights of stairs leading to the various buildings. These flights of stairs have hundreds of polished wooden steps whose rise is only about 6 inches. The trainees must walk at a very brisk pace at all times, sometimes even running up and down these polished steps repeatedly many times per day. Surely all that exercise must help strengthen their legs a lot, because I found it to be a work out just moving around between the buildings.
The Daikuin or kitchen is up a flight of stairs right after the mountain gate. Outside the daikuin hangs a large Umpan (flying cloud) The umpan is rung to announce mealtime. Near the entrance there is a large statue called Idasonten (guardian) and a large calligraphy there that reads Ho Ki which Ryuho translated as happy love. Ho is the work of the Buddha. To train is the best thing so zazen is happy activity, he explained. The Tenzo or head cook is a very highly respected position. The kitchen workers have the hardest job of all because they must get up before the wake up bell to prepare food. Their work is very important because preparing food to nourish the practice is essential.
Not far from the kitchen is the Butsuden or Buddha Hall, another place where entry is restricted but not quite as much as the sodo. The Buddha hall has an outside gallery where the prospective trainees must sit in seiza for the daily services until their tangaryo is over. Yuie, having heard about my problem with sitting in seiza, pointed out to me that originally the initiates had to sit on the stone floor in seiza for the service which lasts about an hour but now in modern times, they have the luxury of a narrow raised tatami platform.
Hatto is the dharma hall where dharma talks are given. Together the Hatto and Butsuden are called Hondo.
Another interesting room that has forbidden entry is the Shidoden / Founders hall or mausoleum. Inside are many small memorial boards for deceased lay people and priests as well as the funerary ashes of Eihei Dogen and his lay benefactor who helped establish Eiheiji.
Memorials are done here. There is a constant flame maintained in front of the altar. On one side sits a golden Shakyamuni Buddha and on the other a golden Mitreya Buddha both eerily lit by the flickering flames of the oil lamps.
After the tour and before dinner, I had about a one hour audience with Rev. Kuroyanagi roshi whom I had met earlier this year when he was visiting in Northern California. He is a happy and charming man and his English is very good. He spent 6 years in Los Angeles at the Soto temple there. Yuie and Ryuho also attended our meeting too. It was a lot of fun and Mr. Kuroyanagi and I talked about a lot of things regarding America and he asked about several people at Zen Center that we know in common. As we talked Mr. Kuroyanagi pointed out that Ryuho was a medical doctor and that Yuie held a graduates degree in literature. It was a fun meeting and I was impressed with how much is known at Eiheiji about Soto zen in Northern California.
Since there wasn’t any lay training programs going on while I was there, I spent a lot of time alone in my room … there were no other practicing visitors except me so I had a big room all to myself that usually is occupied by at least 4 guests. Yuie brought me my meals and showed me everything I had to do. He sat zazen with me in the visitor’s zendo and escorted me to the morning service. I was the only visitor sitting zazen and they even had a roshi sit with Yuie and me in the morning and he gave a dharma talk in English. It was from Dogen's writings and mostly about the correct sitting posture. I remember the last part well, he said, "let your spine be straight and your head slightly tilted downwards. Keep you back erect and let the top of your head feel like it is pushing up against the sky. This last word sky is symbolic for all the previous instructions". It was a nice talk and later after the morning service in the Butsuden the Roshi who had given the dharma talk even came over to introduce himself.
The evening of the day I arrived, I was shown the baths. I entered just as a group of talkative lay people were leaving.. I thought it odd since we were all supposed to observe silence but Yuie just shrugged it off like some Japanese visitors don't stick to the silence rule. It occurred to me later that they might have been workmen. I was left alone in the baths to figure out how they worked. That was actually my first experience with a Japanese public bath. I finally figured out how to soap and shower standing up over the drain using the flexible showerheads along the side of the wall. Later I learned that proper Japanese etiquette is to sit on a little plastic stool while you soap and shower down and pour water over yourself from a pail. The important thing though is not to get any soap into the hot tub water which I accomplished but without much grace. It didn't matter since there was no one there to observe my errors.
After bath there was a period of Zazen and then back to the room alone again to think about how magical it was to be at Eiheiji and the strange twisted path of liberation that had finally brought me there. The view from my room was incredible. The panorama of the misty forest and the surrounding mountains was continuously changing. My stay was very short, not even 24 hours. They have a visitors program there and they stick to it ... guests of my low rank must arrive at 2 PM and leave at 9 AM the following morning. As I walked back down the tourist souvenir strip towards the bus stop, just breathing in the cool mountain air seemed to fill me with contentment. I had been treated so well at Eiheiji that my worldly troubles seemed very distant indeed as I headed back to the train station in Fukui shi.