Zen in daily life

Zen teacher Dogen and the Soto approach to Zen

About learning Zen in Japan

Preliminary words

Danny Waxman' main Zen learning period in Japan was from the end of the fifties till the end of the seventies. (At around 1981, his Zen teacher, Prof. Masunaga Reiho died). During the 13 years, all around, that he was in Japan he lived both in Tokyo and Kyoto. He met many Zen teachers and learned and practiced with them and visited many monasteries. But his main and premier Zen teacher was Prof. Masunaga Reiho. Danny told us that he never met anyone that was so clear and deep about understanding Dogen and Shobogenzo, as was Prof. Masunaga Reiho. He said to us that when you would come near Prof. Masunaga, you would forget all the problems and difficulties that you have and concentrate only on learning and developing your inner abilities. Danny was coming every week to Prof. Masunaga home, to sit zazen with him. He was attending Prof. Masunaga' classes on Zen Buddhism at the Komazawa University in Tokyo, and was escorting his teacher to many places, to seminars concerning Zen, Buddhism and religion matters and to other places as well. Prof. Masunaga had a universal mind. He learned English and German, in order to be able to communicate with western people and understand their culture. He was not wasting his or others time on rituals and rigid formalities. He was pointing straight to what is important in Zazen, Shobogenzo for the specific student. Although he was attending roles as a priest in Eiheiji, and was the vise president of Komazawa University, he always had time for teaching serious students. Those days have passed. Most of the Zen teacher that Danny met have grown old or died, or changed places.

For those reasons most of the information in this page is based on my (Ofer C.) experience. The information that you can find here is subjective and partial but maybe you will find it nevertheless beneficial, I hope so.

I stated in Japan for 3 months between September to December 1998, learning Zen and Martial Art. Because both Prof. Masunaga and my Sensei Danny Waxman emphasis combining Zen and martial Arts (especially Judo), I tried to arrange my schedule so that to do my best in both areas. I was lucky though to be able to meet and learn from very generous and compassionate teachers. My schedule was 2-4 classes a day of martial art sessions, and on Sundays Zen, in additional to sesshin Zen training at some weekends and sometimes meeting with a Zen teacher during the week.

To sum up this paragraph, what is written here is mainly based on my own experience, talks with other foreigners from all over the world that came to learn Zen and other subjects at that time, correspondence with many monasteries, and information from the Internet.

Places and guidelines

Sojiji temple

In Tokyo area my best recommendation is Sojiji temple situated in Tsurumi, a small city on the half way between Tokyo and Yokohama. Sojiji and Eiheiji are the biggest monasteries of the Soto Zen in Japan and function as headquarters and priest training centers.

I warmly suggest that you will make contact with Rev. Dosho SAIKAWA Roshi Photo of Zen Teacher Rev. Saikawa Roshi Abbot of Hosenji, Head of international department at Sojiji, and responsible for laymen' Zen training (in Sundays) Tel: 045-581-6021, Sanzenryo-sama, 2-1-1 Tsurumi, Tsurumi-ku, Yokohama-Shi, Kanagawa-ken. Fax: 045-571-8227

Saikawa Roshi wants to help foreigners to learn Zen. He works to make Sojiji a learning center for foreign and laymen Zen students. In Sojiji there is special place and Zendo - zazen training hall for this purpose. Saikawa Roshi speaks very good English, he even tells jokes in English. He stated outside Japan for some years including almost two year in USA. Most important, he has time to meet and talk without formality with foreign students, although he is very busy man. I will not forget the hours that we had in Sundays and other times after the formal training was over, and had the opportunity to be and talk with him. We were a small group of regular comers. There was Celine from Switzerland, Sozen from Norway, Marco from Italy and more, and sometimes Japanese trainees joined as well.

Besides Saikawa Roshi, and other Zen teachers that live there, other Zen teachers from all over the country are invited to give lectures, teach and make Dokusan, one to one meeting with the Zen student.

Sozen (Mr. Larsen) from Norway is staying in Sojiji, learning to be a Soto Zen priest. As far as I know, he is going to be around for at least one year from now (18/07/99). Sozen is not only a very sincere Zen student, he is also a very serious martial art student and teacher; He live in Japan for more then ten years, and speak fluent Japanese. He is open and friendly and knowledgeable, and he is good company.

One very good point about Sojiji is that Women (not Nuns) can practice there and stay there!

How to get there: From Tokyo-station (in Tokyo) go to the 6th platform and catch trains that go to Yokohama. It takes half hour to arrive and the cost is around 400 yen (one way). From Tsurumi station it is no more than 300-400 meters, 5-10 minutes of walk. Sojiji is located on a small hill. Every body knows where it is.

Other places to train

  • Hoshinji: both Saikawa Roshi and several Zen students that I met that actually trained there recommended learning there or at least doing there sesshin. The Abbot of Hoshinji is Seido Roshi. He does not speak English, but it seems that he welcome newcomers. Address: 45-2 Fushibara, Obama, Fukui-Ken, Japan

From my corresponding with Zen temples before I went to Japan I would say that the following places seems promising or at least answer with friendly attitude.

  • Bukokkuji: Fushi-Hara 38-9, Obama-Shi, Fukui-Ken, 917, Tel/Fax: 0770-523504
  • Zuioji: Yamane-Cho, Niihama-Shi, Ehime-Ken, 792 Japan
  • Keisei Zendo: 3040 Kitagawa Higasitsuno-mura, Takaoka-Gun, Kochi-Ken, Japan 785-05, Tel/fax: (0889) 622200
  • Sanshoji

There are at least few dozens Additional places for practice Soto-Zen, including the famous Eiheiji temple, all over Japan.

Komazawa University is one of the best places in Tokyo for Academic studies of Buddhism and Zen Buddhism. It was actually established as a Soto-Zen University, and the tradition of learning the History, Philosophy and Literature and the wisdom of the Soto-Zen is continuing up to these days. A link to there web site is given here.

Good sources of information

  • List of Zazenkai: temples and centers for Zazen training around Japan (Soto Zen and Rinzai Zen) - can be found at a web site with lists of zen centers and temples.
  • Zen guide: Where to meditate in Japan, Weatherhill, by Martin Roth and John Stevens, 1991. ISBN 0-8348-0202-3. This book was written during the Eighties. It covers Soto Zen, Rinzai Zen and other Zen centers as well. Many things have changed. Teachers changed locations, died or retired. Attitude to Foreigners has changed some for good some for bad. For example it seems that in Sojiji there were since the end of the war till now, three periods in regard to welcoming foreign Zen students. In the sixties Sojiji was very receptive to foreign visitors, in the Eighties 'Zen guide' reports that the atmosphere changed quite drastically. Now, in the end of he Nineties, I can testify that from what I have experienced and seen, it is again a welcoming place. Nevertheless, Three aspects almost didn't changed. The location of the temples and the centers, the small details of daily life in the monasteries, and the difficulties that a foreigner may face when coming to learn Zen in Japan. The earnest Zen student that considers coming and learning Zen in Japan will find this book valuable and interesting.

Points for consideration

There are basically three types of Zen students that come to Japan. Those that come to a very short time, or can spend very short time in Zen training (up to 2-3 weeks), those that come to a medium period of time up to half year or so, and the others that come for much longer period (one year and more).

Those that come for longer periods try to settle down and build a reasonable schedule that will combine Training time with other aspects of life. Such as finding their own place to live, search for a job, learn in Japanese language school, or in the university, makes trips in Japan and so on. Few others enter a monastery and dedicate most of their time to Zen and priest training and life.

People that intend to stay for long period in Japan, must pre arrange everything their own country before they come to Japan. You must have the appropriate Visa, and other needed documents. Japanese Authorities are very rigid on those meters.

From now on I will refer mainly to people that have these characteristics:

They have a limited time and money. They made a considerable effort to change and re-arrange their life so that they will be able to come for a short or medium time for learning in Japan. Some of them had to plan for years for this trip. Some of them will not be able to come again, at least it would be a very difficult to come in the next few years. They all want to find true teacher that will guide them to understand themselves and realty and penetrate their true self and reach Satori.

Japan is an interesting and beautiful country, but it is different and unique then most other countries, because of its unique History. Japan is trying to re-arrange and build its new identity, to combine successfully the best from the old traditions and culture with the modern ways of the western world. This complicate process effects all ways of life, and was exhilarated after the end of the war, and especially in the Nineties. One should be very patient when he or she comes to deal with the Japanese establishments and authorities. It is good to have an elephant skin. Not to give up and tries another approach or another time with another clerk. All kinds of attitudes can be expected from the people you meet. From very warm helping manner, to coldness or even total disregard.

The concept of Gaijin - Foreigner, is well rooted in the Japanese culture and way of life. It is not personal attitude towards you specifically. Most of the younger generations learned English for many years. But the Education system focused mostly on reading and grammar aspects of the language. The Japanese Television channels broadcast only in Japanese and dub all other languages to Japanese. Most of the Japanese have little or no opportunity to speak or hear English. Still quite exceptional are those who work in an international companies, lived or worked outside Japan, or have special interest in the western world. It is possible to find one man or woman out of the entire staff of public or private organization that speak reasonable English in Tokyo area. The more you know Japanese - the better.

Most of Zen teachers don't communicate in English or in other Western languages. The young priests don't have English speaking classes in their 4-year learning program. Soto Zen establishments still don't show a clear and definite openness towards foreigners students in Japan.

There is more chance to create meaningful communication with Zen teachers from the ages around 40-50 like Saikawa Roshi in Japan or Rev. Shohaku Okumura, currently from the Soto Zen Education Center in the USA. They are more likely to be open-minded to the needs and the special situation of the western Zen student. Few older teachers also have this attitude.

Japanese understanding of time is sometimes different then those of the western people. Japanese people tend to establish deep relations more slowly and less easily. They cherish the old costumes of the etiquette and norms of the monasteries and of long period of continued training at the monasteries as signs of seriousness and commitment. They expect the foreigners to adjust themselves to those norms. For Zen students that can effort only one to three months, this can becomes an uneasy situation, frustrating one indeed.

Many westerners come to Japan because they have combined interests in the Japanese Culture. Many people want to make good use of their limited time and resources to learn combinations like: Zen and the Japanese language, Zen and Martial arts, Zen and Calligraphy, Zen and tea ceremony and other combinations. They have to build a tight schedule. They are used to more direct approach, to fast decisions making, they long for immediate recognition in their sincerity and seriousness, but many times they can face this culture gap, rigid attitude and misunderstanding that can lead to disappointment.

To avoid some of those difficulties I advice those with limited time and resources, not to search arbitrarily, but to try to locate and make initial correspondence with a suitable place when they are still at their homeland.

All Zen monasteries still practice Zazen at around 4-am and around 6-8pm. This means that most of the Working Japanese people can not participate in that Zazen sitting periods. Also foreign students have to live within walking distance from the monastery or stay the night in the monastery in order to be able to participate in the morning Zazen and ceremonies. The trains start only at half past five. And it is very not easy task to find accommodation within reasonable walking distance from the monastery.

Some solutions to those circumstances are:

  1. Hopefully finding a Zen teacher that understands and is willing to meet you during the day or evening, even if to a short period of time.
  2. Train in Sesshins - doing only Zazen training for 2-8 days.
  3. Or choose to live for a short period in the monastery.

Sundays and Sesshins are currently the only times laymen can practice in most places. Some places host one or two meeting a month for sitting Zazen. That is the situation at this time in most cases.

It is very fine and nice if you want to experience the unique spiritual and cultural atmosphere of the Zen monasteries, but if you want to find true teacher, you must distinguish between Zen priests and Zen teachers. Most of the priests are not Zen teachers. Even if they are the abbots of their temples.

It is still the custom to differentiate between women monasteries and Men Monasteries. That means that there are fewer places for women to train in monasteries. There is also a very small chance for a nun to learn regularly from a man Zen Teacher, and for a man (priest or layman) to learn regularly from a woman Zen teacher.

One should remember that his or her first time in Japan is learning time. Once you get to Japan, you learn so much, that you will be able in your next visits be much more effective in managing your visit. The most important thing is to be determined within your self to find true knowledge and teaching. You can find it, You must be optimistic, this is the spirit of Zen. Very optimistic indeed.

For those who are keen participators of Martial Arts, Tokyo area suggest much more variety of Martial Arts Schools and many Dojos, then other areas in Japan. Kyoto area and the neighborly prefectures give home to many monasteries from all the branches of Zen.

Some numbers:

You can eat a decent meal in many places for 500-750 yen. Your meal can be rice-oriented meal or noodles, soup, curry rice, meals in boxes, Etc. More sophisticated food cost much more.

In most cases the minimum charge for going on the subway is 160 yen and up, one way. For longer distances you will have to pay more. From Tokyo to Kyoto it is around 14000 yen, one way.

Finding accommodation for the night for 3500-5500 is considered a burgeon in Tokyo and is not easy to find. Unless you have special arrangements as a student of some school or you commit for a long period to some guesthouse you may find that you will have to pay much more to have a place to sleep. That is why prior arrangements are almost essentials.

From what I know and experienced; Tokyo in particularly and Japan in general are considerably safe places, also for women.

Japan is a fascinating country with a lot of knowledge and beauty to offer. Please have a lot of good and fruitful time there.

Ofer C.