One option for my future I've considered is monastery life. To be honest, it was not an option I would have considered for myself, yet anyway, if it hadn’t been suggested to me last fall. As I read more about Antaiji, the idea blossomed as a real possibility. I’d like to point out that I didn’t go looking at the pretty pictures of this place until I was showing them to my parents to try to gain their support for my trip in a last ditch effort before leaving the States. So my expectations were pretty accurate, with some minor discrepancies. For example, in Japan, monasteries are not ‘No Smoking’ and a major one – me! By me, I mean my ability to fit in for all the reasons that have come up in previous posts, some of which could change with practice and some of which I’m stuck with, like my age.
I’ve asked several of the monks here or that have passed through what their take on monastery life is. One thing I’ve learned is that most wouldn’t choose a monastery to ‘retire to’ in their old age if they had another option. Sangha members here are expected to fend for themselves, contribute regardless of their age and competence, and there’s no health insurance plan. In monasteries in other countries, it costs to live there, so people still maintain a day job to support themselves. Docho-san has related that most of the students at the Soto School go there, not by choice, but because they have been told to by their families, so that they can marry their betrothed, or due to a lack of other options. I will certainly look into monasteries in the States to see how they compare. In the meantime, here’s a bit more about two monks who’ve spent time at Antaiji.
Koho-san, the head tenso here, arrived about a month after I did, but had been here before. He’s a programmer and has translated several Zen texts from Japanese into Russian. Whatever success I’ve had, I think I owe most of it to his frankness, patience, friendship. He helped me with my Japanese during the month I led tea meetings and meal chants, though he’s the first to tell me I remained far from perfect. Every sesshin Koho-san has to fight the urge to run away. In fact, he did run away during a sesshin the last time he was here. This urge to run away from Antaiji during sesshin is one that the monks younger than 50 that I talked to seemed to share and it gives me the greatest pause in my consideration of monastery life. How could a monk who’s made the life choice to come here not love sitting? For one thing, it seems they don’t really sit anymore, they’ve lost the motivation, that bit of effort it takes to focus the mind on not-thinking. Koho-san sometimes plans what he’s going to think about during the different rounds, and sometimes he sleeps, though he definitely prefers not to. He has gone so far as to bring sharp objects that will poke him when he starts nodding off. It doesn’t work most of the time. I’ve talked with him about it and can see how things change when sitting is obligatory and such a large part of the routine. There’s another monk whose been around for a couple of years that Docho-san will drag outside on his zabuton when he falls asleep, even when its raining or cold.
A Japanese monk who was here before I arrived spent ~ three years at Antaiji studying with Docho-san, and after finishing his years here went to Eiheiji to train to become priest. After only a couple of days at Eiheiji, he ran away, putting aside his robes to train in acupuncture and homeopathic medicine. Although he had successfully navigated the conditions, circumstances, and self presented by Antaiji, he was faced with a whole new set he was unprepared for at Eiheiji. Apparently there’s a bit of an indoctrination period when you get there...
left to right: Jido and Koho
I think no matter where you’ve been and what you’ve managed to get through or graduate from, whenever you move yourself into new conditions and circumstances there’s a whole new set of things to deal with, both on a practical level and a ‘self’ level. What is this resistance that we keep having to fight in ourselves when we find ourselves in new situations? I think it has something to do with loosing that safe and comfortable feeling that arises when we know the rules, what’s expected of us, and we know we can meet the requirements and expectations successfully to some degree. This ability improves our image of ourselves in our own eyes, but can lead to apathy, indifference and even laziness in the long term.
There's the other extreme too, where folks like to run and end up drifting from place to place never really confronting the challenges of self anywhere. But that's not been me often enough to relate to that story.
Can we approach each moment with a fresh, unlazy mind, a beginner’s mind – letting go of self-image, expectations, assumptions? If we could do that we’d be less likely to get caught off-balance. Would that be true freedom? It seems much easier said than done though.