Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Night at Eiheiji

Hello all!

Whew it is pretty darn hot over here. The temperature in the staff room at my JHS is 90 (32C) and the humidity is high. Apparently we will not be turning on the A/C until someone passes out. I hope that someone is not the pregnant ALT sweltering at her desk. On the plus side, it is exam week, so the students are busy studying quietly for their big tests Thursday and Friday so I do not have to go to class and be the one to pass out.

Now it is time for that promised post about my overnight at Eiheiji Temple in northern Fukui. Yay! I have had a very busy month with trips all over the prefecture and the Car Rally which I co-planned with the amazing Grainne this past weekend (25th and 26th). On the 10th I went up to the Tojimbo area (3 hrs northeast of Ohi) for a fabulous birthday party where I got to hang out with Grainne, Hillary, Madeline (it was her birthday), and many other awesome people for a good portion of the evening. On the 18th I went to Eiheiji Temple to do an overnight stay at one of the largest and most famous zen temples in Japan. Eihieji is about 10km east of Fukui city, so it took us about 2.5 hours to get there.

Eiheiji temple is also a monastery which hosts over 200 monks. Jonathan and I visited Eiheiji and got an English tour of the buildings and grounds our first fall in Japan (2009). The founder of Soto Zen Buddhism, Dogen, founded Eiheiji in the 1200s, but due to multiple fires, the oldest building in the complex was built in the 1700s. There are rows of 600 year old trees planted by the 5th head monk (abbot). The place is just breathtakingly serene and beautiful. The grounds and buildings inspire quiet contemplation and seem to ooze patience and a great sense of calm.

We (over 20 foreign English teachers) arrived at the front gates around 1:15 and the overnight stay officially began at 2:00. We got little ribbons that notified the monks that we are overnight guests and allowed to wander around the meditation halls and sleeping areas that normal guests of the temple are not allowed to enter. We watched an informative movie, were able to wander the grounds on our own, were given the opportunity to take a bath, and then had dinner.

Dinner was very fancy, not the traditional monk fare. We received several courses of vegan food (zen monks do not eat meat or any animal products) that looked quite good, but my stomach was not happy with them. There were a lot of pickled foods and very pungent flavors like mushroom and miso. I struggled to eat as much as I could, but had quite a bit left over. After dinner, I told the head monk that I am pregnant and my nausea prevents me from being able to eat as much as I normally would. He seemed genuinely happy to hear that I was pregnant and apologized about the portion size. It is so Japanese to apologize for something that a) he did not know about and b) is in no way his fault! I apologized for not telling him beforehand and asked for a half portion at breakfast. I did not tell the temple I was pregnant before coming because I did not know if they would forbid me from staying overnight because of my 'condition.' You know, the whole 'It is easier to ask forgiveness than permission' thing. I figured if I waited until I had been there until 7 they would not make me leave. It turned out to not be a problem at all.

After dinner we had a bit of free time and then and hour to ask questions about anything. We asked about meditation (zazen), the history of the temple, what the monks lives are like, how Japanese Buddhism is different from other types of Buddhism, and what the point of meditation really is (according to our guide there is no goal at all!) I learned a lot about the temple and got to see how Japanese culture influences Zen Buddhism, and how Zen Buddhism influences Japanese culture.

After the Q&A period, we did 15 minutes of meditation. I was shocked that it was so short. I guess in the past the foreigners had difficulty sitting for very long so they decided to make it a short session. Lights out were at 9pm, but some girls in our room stayed up until 10:30 or so. We were woken up by a bell at 3:40am. Our first meditation session of the day was at 4:20, and this one was about 20 minutes. To give you some perspective on how much easier it was for us than it is for the monks, they meditate for 1 hour in the morning and 2 hours at night! We did 35 minuted total. I enjoyed the evening session, but I thought I was gonna puke during the morning session (dang morning sickness!). I got through it without having to walk out, but only just barely.

After the morning meditation, we went to the morning service. We offered some incense up to a painting of Dogen (the founder), and then listened to the monks chant for 15 minutes or so. Then we left for the tour. The tour was pretty cool, we got access to some restricted areas and saw some really cool things. I did not bring my camera so I don't have photos of the special back rooms, but they looked a bit like the normal rooms that are open to the public. One funny thing happened on the tour, though. When we were walking down some treacherous stairs, the head monk calls up, 'Laura-san, please hold on to the rail!' He wanted to make sure the pregnant lady did not tumble down the stairs, so he asked someone at the front of the group what my name was so I knew that he wanted me specifically to be extra careful. Isn't that sweet?

After the tour was breakfast. Breakfast was the last thing on our schedule before we were allowed to go. I was not feeling so well at breakfast time was approaching. I had eaten some crackers and cheerios earlier in the monrning in an attempt to settle my stomach, but to no avail. So I spent some quality time in the bathroom as everyone walked down to breakfast. When I exited the bathroom I saw that there were 2 monks waiting for me to escort me to the dining room. I was pleased to see that we got to take the elevator instead of having to go down 3 flights of stairs to meet up with everyone. Breakfast has lots of boiled vegetables, soup, and pickled things again. Even though I got a half portion I did not finish everything (again), but there was only a little left over.

After breakfast we left Eiheiji, got Starbucks, and Grainne and I did a bunch of work for the Car Rally. Everyone was exhausted from the long drive and getting up so early on Sunday morning, but it was an amazing once-in-a-lifetime experience that I am so happy to have participated in!

Here are some photos. They are small because I got them off my phone. We have better pictures of Eiheiji around here somewhere...

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