Meditate In Japan


Let me share some life-changing experiences with you. It was in 2005, I was in Europe and had this hunger to go and practice intensive meditation somewhere.

It had only been about five months since I left the Thai-forest monastery in the UK, where I spent 100 days. Now, I was looking into going to Asia. After some research online I arranged to practice at a Mahasi meditation center in Malaysia.

The Mountain Temple


Not many days passed until I found out about a Buddhist Soto Zen monastery in Japan called Antaiji, located in the mountains. On their homepage I read that they were almost self-sufficient with their own rice fields and vegetable plantations.

I also learned that living there entailed plenty of hard work and two intensive meditation retreats a month. I had always been fascinated with Japanese culture and this remote monastery was just the type of challenge I was looking for...

According to their website the temple more or less closed down over the winter months because of heavy snowfall, that meant I would have to go to Japan first and head for Malaysia later on. I made arrangements with the temple in Japan and rescheduled with the monastery in Malaysia.

Japanese Culture


I flew into Osaka and had to take two trains and a bus to reach the base of the mountain. Once out of the big city, the landscape got really lush and mountainous. There was little flat land around so they seemed to cultivate rice and vegetables wherever possible.

The train rides took about five hours and then I continued for another 30 minutes by bus. Japanese culture is something else! As the train conductor entered the carriage, he formally greeted the passengers and bowed by the door - polite, is an understatement.

Walking Up The Mountain


I got off as the bus stopped in a sharp bend and there I stood at the foot of the mountain. It was about five in the afternoon which would give me another hour-or-so of daylight. A narrow dirt road seemed to lead uphill.

In the email the abbot of the monastery had told me that it was a 45-minute walk from the bus stop to the temple. The climb was tiring yet pleasant.

There were plenty of small rice paddies and vegetable plantations along the way and the mountain sides were lush with fresh greenery. As I crossed over a small bridge, the gentle sound of a waterfall drew my attention - the peaceful surroundings were starting to grow on me.

The gravel road was really winding and as I reached higher, I soaked in the breathtaking view of valleys and mountains in the distance. There were pine trees wherever I looked and some bamboo here and there. Finally, I saw a blue building that looked like a barn with some heavy machinery parked in front of it.

Japanese Soto Zen


The main temple at Antaiji monastery, in Japan.
My 89 days at the monastery were a mix of hard work, intensive-meditation practice and an introduction to Japanese culture. Living close to nature in the mountains made for a peaceful setting. There were no neighbors other than the small villages down by the base of the mountain. *The photo is of the main temple. (Courtesy of Antaiji)

The temple was almost self-sufficient with its two rice fields, several vegetable gardens, a small number of fruit trees and about ten chickens. It was a big monastery with few community residents. During my stay, there were only 3 monks living at the temple and the number of guests varied from 2-8. There was an almost endless amount of work at the monastery and with so few community members it meant hard work.

The daily routines included cleaning the temple and the living quarters, cooking food three times a day, weeding the rice fields, caring for the vegetable plantations, feeding the chickens, cutting large areas of grass, cutting down trees, chopping firewood and meditating in the temple. Meditation was referred to as zazen.

The Rice Fields


Working barefoot in the rice fields was a totally new experience for me. The paddies were covered in about ten centimeters of water and the bottom or floor if you like, was muddy. So, as you put your foot in the water it would sink down into the soft mud. Getting out of the mud was much harder, since it sticks like glue to your feet.

As you're pacing up and down the long rows of rice plants, you hear the fluffy sounds of everyone's feet going in and out of the mud. In the beginning, it was hard to keep balance but with some practice it wasn't much of a problem.

Each rice field had its own frog choir, cheering on the workers. With the hot sun and the reflections in the water, it became a physically demanding task to remove weeds around the rice plants. My thighs and back got really sore the first few weeks after hours of bending over. It's messy work too, cleaning your toe nails after a day in the rice paddies was a real challenge.

Meditation Retreats (Sesshins)


The daily meditation routines were rather moderate with an hour in the morning and evening, but twice a month we did meditation retreats known as sesshins. These three and five-day sesshins were by far the most intensive meditation practices I had ever undertaken.

We meditated in three five-hour blocks: 4am - 9am, 10am - 3pm and 4pm - 9pm with breakfast after the first session and lunch after the second. During each five-hour block, we would alternate between sitting and walking meditation and we were only allowed to leave the temple for going to the toilet.

The combination of physically demanding work round the monastery and the really intensive sesshins made for intense-physical pain - especially during the retreats. My back, hips, thighs and knees started to ache so badly two to three days into the sesshins that my mind would be overwhelmed with physical pain.

I would like to point out that these challenges made for a major boost in determination and will power, but how these sesshins effect meditative progress is a different story.

Working Mindfully


The activities at the monastery started before dawn, I especially enjoyed the peaceful morning meditation. The main temple was so still except for the occasional sound of a woodpecker echoing across the mountain slopes.

All the work at the monastery was done mindfully and without unnecessary talk. This type of practice is highly beneficial. Awareness makes the mind calm and I personally find it most soothing to work mindfully without talking to anyone. The results are steady attention and less daydreaming. Work was referred to as samu.

All you have to do is pay close attention to what you're doing in the present and not think about what you did yesterday or what you're going to do tomorrow...

Snakes Love Frogs


I've never been a big reader, so I would spend my free time meditating. In the late afternoons, I used to do walking meditation along the dirt road leading down from the monastery. The beautiful scenery round the mountain really inspired me - not to mention the colorful sunsets.

While walking mindfully along the dirty road I would often come across snakes curled up in the warm sunlight. With so many frogs around it's expected to have a large snake population. I saw a total of 11 snakes during my time at the temple, but only one of them was venomous.

The close encounter with the green garden snake in the chicken house shook me the most. An old Japanese monk got bitten by a snake in the chicken house one day, while picking eggs without keeping an eye out for visitors.

The Main Temple (Hondo)


With classic Japanese-window screens and natural tatami mats, the main temple which was called hondo offered a unique ambiance. Even though I had endured so many hours of agonizing practice in there, I would go back most evenings for an hour of walking meditation on my own - with the ceiling lights dimmed low. Slowly pacing back and forth across the temple floor, is one of my best memories of Antaiji.

Best of luck with your meditation practice!





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