Gathering alms, Tofuku-ji temple, Kyoto, Japan, 1992.

SHOKOKU TEMPLE is in Northern Kyoto, on level ground, with a Christian college just south of it and many blocks of crowded little houses and stone-edged dirt roads north. It is the mother-temple of many branch temples scattered throughout Japan, and one of the several great temple­systems of the Rinzai Sect of Zen. Shokoku-ji is actually a compound: behind the big wood gate and tile­topped crumbling old mud walls are a number of temples each with its own gate and walls, gardens, and acres of wild bamboo grove. In the center of the compound is the soaring double-gabled Lecture Hall, silent and airy, an enormous dragon painted on the high ceiling, his eye burning down on the very center of the cut-slate floor.

Except at infrequent rituals the hall is unused, and the gold-gilt Buddha sits on its high platform at the rear untroubled by drums and chanting. In front of the Lecture Hall is a long grove of fine young pines and a large square lows-pond. To the east is a wooden bell-tower and the unpretentious gate of the Sodo, the training school for Zen monks, or Unsui. They will become priests of Shokoku-ji temples. A few, after years of za-zen (meditation), koan study, and final mastery of the Avatamsaka (Kegon) philosophy, become Roshi (Zen Masters), qualified to head Sodos, teach lay groups, or do what they will. Laymen are also permitted to join the Unsui in evening Zendo (meditation hall) sessions, and some, like the Unsui, are given a koan by the Roshi and receive regular sanzen—the fierce face­to-face moment where you spit forth truth or perish—from him. Thus being driven, through time and much za-zen, to the very end of the problem.

In the routine of Sodo life, there are special weeks during the year in which gardening, carpentry, reading, and such, are suspended, and the time given over almost entirely to za-zen. During these weeks, called sesshin, “concentrating the mind “—sanzen is received two to four times a day and hours of za-zen in the Zendo are much extended. Laymen who will observe the customs of Sodo life and are able to sit still are allowed to join in the sesshin. At Shokoku-ji, the springsesshin is held the first week of May.

The sesshin starts in the evening. The participants single-file circle into the mat-floored Central Hall of the Sodo and sit in a double row in dim light. The Roshi silently enters, sits at the head, and everyone drinks tea, each fishing his own teacup out of the deep­sleeved black robe. Then the Jikijitsu—head Unsui of the Zendo (a position which revolved among the older men, changing every six months)—reads in formal voice the rules of Zendo and sesshin, written in archaic Sino-Japanese. The Roshi says you all must work very hard; all bow and go out, returning to the Zendo for short meditation and early sleep.

At three a.m. the Fusu (another older Zenbo who is in charge of food, finances and meeting people) appears in the Zendo ringing a hand-bell. Lights go on—ten-watt things tacked under the beams of a building lit for centuries by oil lamps—and everyone wordlessly and swiftly rolls up his single quilt and stuffs it in a small cupboard at the rear of his mat, leaps off the raised platform that rings the hall, to the stone floor, and scuffs out in straw sandals to dash icy water on the face from a stone bowl. They come back quickly and sit crosslegged on their za-zen cushions, on the same mat used for sleeping. The Jikijitsu stalks in and sits at his place, lighting a stick of incense and beginning the day with the rifleshot crack of a pair of hardwood blocks whacked together and a ding on a small bronze bell. Several minutes of silence, and another whack is heard from the Central Hall. Standing up and slipping on the sandals, the group files out of the Zendo trailing the Jikijitsu—who hits his bell as he walks—and goes down the roofed stone path, fifty yards long, that joins the Zendo and the Central Hall. Forming two lines and sitting on the mats, they begin to chant sutras. The choppy Sino-Japanese words follow the rhythm of a fish-shaped wooden drum and a deep-throated bell. They roar loud and chant fast. The Roshi enters and between the two lines makes deep bows to the Buddha­image before him, lights incense, and retires. The hard-thumping drum and sutra-songs last an hour, then suddenly stop and all return to the Zendo. Each man standing before his place, they chant the Prajña-paramita-hridaya Sutra, the Jikijitsu going so fast now no one can follow him. Then hoisting themselves onto the mats they meditate. After half an hour a harsh bell­clang is heard from the Roshi’s quarters. The Jikijitsu bellows “Getout!” and the Zenbos dash out racing, feet slapping the cold stones and robes flying, to kneel in line whatever order they make it before the sanzen room. A ring of the bell marks each new entrance before the Roshi. All one hears from outside is an occasional growl and sometimes the whack of a stick. The men return singly and subdued from sanzen to their places.

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