Monday, September 20, 2010

Antaiji Recollections: Planting Rice – Genjo-koan of the Antaiji experience?

There were so many aspects of my Antaiji experience that fit some way or another into the topic of rice planting (Tave) that I’ve come to think of the Tave as the ‘Genjo-koan’ of Antaiji. But I’m not going to be able to adequately articulate all the reasons that notion works for me in the space of a post. So I’ll just try to highlight some aspects of rice planting.

Tave was by no means the hardest or most unpleasant samu assignment. It also differed from other samu because the whole monastery (minus the Tenso) was involved – even Docho-san’s children participated for awhile. This was to ensure that all of one rice field got planted in one day.

How easily the rice planting goes depends on the condition of the field. Basically the planters have to be able to see intersecting grid lines, about a foot apart, that are marked onto the mud’s surface a day or two before. During planting 3-5 rice seedlings are carefully stuffed into each spot where the lines cross. If the field isn’t level or there’s too much water due to rain, the grid lines disappear under the water. This year the first field we planted was about a third under water.

On the morning of Tave there was no zazen and no cleaning of the monastery. Instead, we pulled on our work clothes, slugged down a cup of tea or instant coffee and met by the kitchen entrance a bit before 5 am. There was a bit of nervousness and joking around as everyone gathered in anticipation of the big day. As far as clothing, there was some discussion on the evening prior about footwear. You could either go barefoot or tightly strap on your otherwise loose-fitting rubber boots with duct tape (or string or both) so the boots wouldn’t get pulled off as you made your way through the mud. (If you were ‘in the know’ there are special boots made for planting you may have purchased, like the ones modeled below.) It was also suggested we grab a plastic bag to carry extra seedlings in, since it was going to be difficult to turn around mid-field, avoid messing up the grid, and not step on planted seedlings to get more.

Boots specially made for planting rice (modeled by Koho)

We headed out in the dim light of a chilly morning collecting a van load of rice seedlings on the way. There nothing like your first few minutes of stepping into and trying to move forward through shin-deep mud surrounded by swarms of small blood-sucking bugs that occasionally flew into your mouth, nose or ears. I recommend that everyone try it at least once in their life. There was a loud chorus of frogs accompanying the sound of mud pulling at our boots, along with occasional shouted directions. Overall, Tave was a concentration practice. You learned to switch off the panic about the bugs, got used to the feel of the mud, and tried to concentrate on the row you were planting and on grabbing the right number of seedlings as you went along.

After awhile our work got evaluated: The lines we had planted were not straight enough. It was explained again that we had to match the grid to facilitate weeding etc later. Not entirely our fault given that the lines were partially under water. But some were better at eyeballing the grid than others. And, of course, abilities also depended on the success of neighboring workers. People started getting frustrated and irritated with themselves, with their neighbors, with the grid, with the ways that had been devised to try to figure out where the grid was. And this wasn’t just any group of people, supposedly we were practiced in ‘pausing before reacting’ to the circumstances..

At some point after breakfast, I remember thinking that everyone had the best of intentions, was trying their hardest to do a good job and/or to get the field properly planted. People had different perspectives on how this would be best accomplished. People had different perspectives on success. People literally had different perspectives of the field itself. Different people had different strengths and short-comings. But, I think it is accurate to say that at least for this group of people, everyone was trying their best. This realization didn’t make the situation any less serious, but most of the time I was able to stay grounded (more or less, given the mud) and less affected by the reactivity of others.

We took breaks for breakfast, midmorning ‘tea’ and lunch. What a scraggly, mud-covered motley crew we were! The field did get finished that day. At the end of the day we all got to take hot baths to soak off the mud so we could admire our bug bites. The next day we were told, however, that the field was a disaster and for several days folks tried to straighten out the lines. It was a bit of a disappointment. Some continued to speculate for days on how to make grid lines more reliably..

Antaiji has two rice fields, so only two days while I was there were spent doing Tave. The condition of the second rice field was pretty perfect. The difference in the planting experience, in terms of speed, non-frustration, and success, was incredible. We finished near lunch time and went to a nearby hot spring to celebrate…

The Antaiji rice field in spring

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Other notes:
Organic Rice!: Antaiji is probably one of the few places in Japan where the rice is manually planted. Most rice paddies these days are planted using a machine. (Driving by those paddies was kind of depressing after I could compare, they look so beautiful and lush compared to ours – at least this year.) The places that use a machine, however, rely on pesticides and herbicides to keep their crops weed and insect free. Antaiji’s rice crop is chemical-free. The planting machines’ rows are too narrow to allow for manual weeding of the Antaiji rice crop… hence, manual planting.

Food!: Antaiji is largely a self-sustaining monastery and its major crop is rice. That rice goes to feed residents their requisite 1/2 cup per meal (I think Dogen suggests 1 cup, but times have changed), typically along with soup, often a miso, and a couple of side dishes. We also sort the rice grains we eat before it gets cooked, pulling out the few rice hulls, pebbles, bugs that have stayed or found their way into the rice stores.

Harvest!: This year's rice crop should be due for harvesting soon. I wonder how it turned out...  I wonder what harvesting is like...


HockeyBuddhist said...

Antaiji sounds like a fascinating place. Also vaguely terrifying. How long were you there? How do you think the experience changed your practice? Will you go back?


Happi said...

I was there a bit over 3 months, from the start to the end of the spring-summer visitor season. I'm still processing and assimilating the experience, so I can't yet say how it changed my practice except for a couple things:

First, my physical and mental stamina for zazen have increased noticeably. Being honest, I loved sitting four hours a day. That's not to say the five day sesshins were a breeze though. Sitting at the Zen Center (1 or 1.5 hrs stretches) now seems short and I don't want to get up at the end.

Second, very little had challenged my practice for a long time. Antaiji jolted me out of a comfort zone. It was kinda of backwards for me, i.e. I think a lot of people might go to a place like Antaiji because they have something to sort out. I went there with a lot of sureity, found myself struggling to keep my head above water at times, and so came out feeling like there is a lot to work on. There were a fair number of physical and mental switches I had to flip to get through. I didn't always like what I saw in myself. Part of that was a sense of being 'stuck' there with no chance to come up for a breath of air because I was there for the full stretch. But, by the way, that was part of the challenge, I am glad I wasn't there for just a couple weeks or even a month like some.

Antaiji is just Antaiji, a beautiful place with a good teacher to be sure, but physically very challenging. During the visitor season Docho-san works just like everyone else, although for that time there isn't a whole lot of formal teaching going on, but rather teaching by example. I would love to go back for a short stretch anytime (especially once I've memorized all the Japanese chants and learned a bit of Japanese). I would consider going back for a longer stretch as well, for study, but I won't have the opportunity without totally 'unemploying' myself though. Given the lessons about myself I've already taken away from there, I am exploring teachers in the States at the moment.

Thanks for asking. I'm glad I had a chance to address those questions. If you're considering going there, let me know and I'll give you a list of things you might want to take along...