Daniel in Japaniel

Hunger is not an option

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It’s tea time on the second day at Hokyoji. In the right side of a tatami laden main hall, there are shin high tables lined up end to end in two parallel rows with one end closed by another table. The wood is stained to the color right before burgundy becomes brown. All along the sides of the tables are zafu (little cushions used for zazen). No one is sitting, the thirty of us, either American, buddhist priest or otherwise, stand behind our zafus. The Antioch crew shifting their weight off knees to ankles to feet to ankles to knees again, attempt to recover from the near hour of sitting meditation from the earlier morning. It’s now morning tea time. A slow wave of lowered heads runs through everyone, looking through the corners of our eyes we remember, “oh yeah, abbott, we gasho, right, got it” By the time the head abbott makes it to the closed end of the tables he takes his hands out of sezu and gestures everyone to sit.

A mantra that ran through my head throughout the whole secular seclusion experience living at the Soto Zen monastery Hokyoji, was this “hunger is not an option”. The short time we spent there was exhausting, but, at the same time so comfortable. We met to eat 5 times a day. Rice gruel and pickled vegetables in the morning, Brown rice and veggies for lunch, and then various delicious dinners in the evening. On top of that we had tea twice a day which was always a combination of either fruit, mochi, or crackers, with either black, wheat, or green tea. Housing was provided for, baths were allowed once a day, the sights surrounding the temple were pure pleasure for the eyes. However, waking up at four, at least 3 hours of sitting meditation, cleaning tasks, walking up mountain paths, takahatsu-ing on the streets, and walking meditation was an incomparable exhaustion.

Usually fatigue is broken into two categories: mental, physical. You can be both. You can be neither. At Hokyoji I felt neither. There was some type of exhaustion. I was working a part of mind I rarely ever use. Zazen is time spent with yourself. When you are in full, half-lotus, Indian, Burmese style sitting, eyes half closed, virtually no sound besides the water running through the mountain cobblestone troughs, you mind rests and, like a backroom intern, sighs as he slowly picks up the piles of paperwork and begins to alphabetize.

Again, maybe to clarify my mantra, the way I rationalized the regimented lifestyle was I was learning a reflex. Like breathing, the awkward practices of foot washing, bowl stacking, napkin folding, were so that needs could be eliminated. The mindset of I, Me, Mine, was sought to be destroyed, and when pots of eggplant shitake mushroom curry are placed in front of you, it’s hard to want beyond what is in sight. It’s all a dance, foreplay for the meditation throughout the day. More than a spa, you are forced to be mindful, whether you are consciously trying to or not, like Ralph Macchio in the Karate Kid, you are learning a craft, a reflex.

The realization that comes, or came for me, as I chewed these words, was that there is little need for regimentation, the monastery was kindergarten preparing you for the next step, the noise that comes with elementary school, the depression of middle school, the flairing emotions of high school, uncertainty, manicness, the distraction that comes with life.

Then it was time to sit, though.

One night the abbott surprised us with a third session of zazen. After sitting for a good hour and some change, frustration filled my head. Pride was a source of power throughout the days, the inner monologue mocking myself for thinking my knees hurt, for thinking things were difficult. So the frustration filled my head, while any compassion I was stockpiling for the world was emptying out.

Before that, an image of my father appeared as a caricature, he was on a ducks body. Then the body swirled into an old woman. A few moments later it was an unrecognisable decaying something or other, and then it was a teacher, then things sped up more, it shifted into anything and everything, while my eyes could scarcely comprehend the shapes and sizes. There was no frustration then, though. I realized he was and he wasn’t these things at the same time. He is defined by his presence in these things: people’s personalities, the way a rainstorm feels, the scruffy gray 5 o’clock shadow of your Sensei; yet he is also defined in his absence from them, what they lack, what they can’t offer. And yet, it almost simply doesn’t matter, “hunger is not an option”.

He’s there, simple enough.

Ingrained into my experience of things is always everything I have ever thought or felt, and nothing I will ever know.

I will stop there. This is by no means to seem condescending. Literally these are straight from my notes I took after having these thoughts and feelings. It’s sad to say, but the following day (continuing from the frustration of the 3rd zazen) bitterness took me over. I found myself in the same mindset my mind always wanders back to, mindless, irrational cynicism.

My thoughts the took me over for the next 2 days. Trying my best to force the compassion back in my head, I resisted making snide comments, or even thinking negatively of the people and places surrounding me. I finally decided what I would ask the abbott for dokusan.

How often do you get a chance to ask a Zen master, any question you could dream up?

I sat half lotus in the ante-room, with a patina copper bell in front of me. I heard ringing from the master’s chambers and I tried to ring the bell. Sadly, I was terrified, I hit the bell too softly, then again the same, I finally hit it an audible level when one of the monks took the mallet of my hands, made a half bow, and gestured me to the abbott’s room.

I took off my slippers and knelt by the door. Trying my best not to screw this up, I slowly opened the sliding doors, stood, walked in, bowed, knelt again and closed the door quietly (using my fingers to prevent and noise). I side stepped in front of him, made a full prostration, lifting the head of the Buddha with my palms facing the sky. He corrected my form, and insisted I not bow three times. And then, after a moment, his opened palm came into the corner of lowered eyes. I began to tell him my life story. Well, he and the translator.

I wasn’t attempting melodrama, just trying to give context to my question. Catching him up to the moment where some half-Vietnamese suburbia boy was kneeling before him, I asked him “why is it, that on my path to compassion, I only meet more hate within myself”

The first words he said were “おめでとう” – congratulations. This is a gift from the Buddha. That goosebump rush destroyed me as I was beyond holding tears. I don’t believe in a spiritual Buddha mind you, just a metaphoric one. He reminded me that Dogen (the father of the Soto Zen school) lost his father at age 3, and his mother at age 8. He asked me “if you had a stroke today, and forgot all the pain of your past, would you be as happy as you are today?” Which, was rather open ended to me. I mean, sure I have thought of this before, sadness builds character, you can’t have joy without it, etc. etc. I have heard this before. But he was honestly asking me. Just like he honestly wanted to hear my question, he wanted to hear my answer.


Written by Daniel

September 22, 2008 at 12:22 pm

Posted in temples

One Response

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  1. oh daniel, this was a magnificent post.


    September 24, 2008 at 12:40 am

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