Zen practice in Japan

My main Zen teacher in the 1990s was Hogen Yamahata, known as Hogen-san to his students, who travelled regularly from Japan to conduct sesshin, and in the late 1990s started to spend more of his time in Australia. I was planning a visit to Japan in 1995 and hoped to visit Hogen-san at his temple, Chogen-ji, near Mt Fuji. Apart from the fact that I found out he was actually visiting Australia at the time I planned to go to Japan, his long-term student Peter Thompson advised me that Hogen-san’s temple was only a small family temple with one or two students at most. and that it would be better for me to visit Bukkokuji, where Hogen-san had trained with his main teacher, Harada Tangen Roshisama. So in 1995, I went to Bukkokuji and spent a week training with Roshisama.

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The entrance to Bukkokuji, a Zen monastery in Obama, Japan.

Harada Tangen Roshisama in the early 1990s.

Harada Tangen Roshisama in the early 1990s.

The Abbot of Bukkokuji, Harada Tangen, is the only surviving successor of Harada Daiun Roshi (1871 – 1961), the Zen monk who reintroduced koan introspection to Soto Zen and launched the Harada-Yasutani lineage with the Maezumi, Kapleau, Yamada and Aitken branches now so influential in the West.

I slept in an annex off this room on a thin mattress on the floor - of course it was rolled up and put away each day.

I slept in an annex off this room on a thin mattress on the floor –  rolled up and put away each day.

One of the senior practitioners, Jikusan (Patricio Goycoolea), was a Chilean photographer who came to Bukkokuji in 1989 for a magazine article and ended up staying for 10 years to train with Tangen Roshisama. It was Jikusan who persuaded Tangen Roshisama to allow me to stay at Bukkokuji, and gave me information and advice while I was there.

With Jikusan above the cemetery beside Bukkokuji.

With Jikusan above the cemetery beside Bukkokuji.

I also got to know Frederic, a French physicist, who had been at Bukkokuji for five years. There were around 30 practitioners living at Bukkokuji, 20 men and 10 women. Eight were gaijin, including an Australian woman Rae, who somewhat surreptitiously sought me out for news from Australia.

Frederic

Frederic

We rose at 3.50 am each morning. The day included around 10 hours of zazen and other forms of meditation, an exercise period and a run, a 2 hour work period after lunch, and ended at 9 pm – when the smart practitioners went straight to sleep.

The main zendo.

The main zendo

Two monks tying on their sandals for takuhatsu (ritual begging)

Two monks tying on their sandals for takuhatsu (ritual begging)

Monks departing for takuhatsu

Monks departing for takuhatsu

I returned to Japan in 1997 and spent some time in Tokyo and in Kyoto, visiting a number of zen monasteries.

Contemplating the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto

Contemplating the rock garden at Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto

I also visited several Zen temples at Kamakura south of Tokyo, including Kencho-ji. Built in 1253, it is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan, and the head of the Gosan (the five “mountain” monasteries of Kamakura).

In the hojo at Kencho-ji

In the hojo at Kencho-ji

Also at Kamakura is the Dai-Butsu. Cast in 1252, it is a 120 ton bronze image of Amida Buddha. The surrounding temple was destroyed by a tsunami in 1498 and the Dai-Butsu has been in the open air ever since.

The Dai-Butsu at Kamakura

The Dai-Butsu at Kamakura

I also did some Rinzai Zen training at the Tesshukai dojo in suburban Tokyo during my visit in 1997. A photo of Tesshu (1836-1888) hangs in the entrance. Tesshu was an influential Zen teacher and also the most outstanding swordsman of the 19th century, founding the Muto Ryu school of swordsmanship.

Entrance to the Tesshukai dojo. A photo of Tesshu hangs on the wall.

Entrance to the Tesshukai dojo. A photo of Tesshu hangs on the wall.

Tesshukai dojo

Tesshukai dojo

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