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A week in a Japanese monastery

A week in a Japanese monastery

"Why on earth did I come here?" was going through my mind. It was day two in the monastery. I was lying on a thin futon, dreaming of a nice hotel with a shower and air conditioning.

The nuns were very warm and welcoming, even though they normally don't take lay people. A few times a year, they accept common folk from Japan, to meditate in their monastery for three days in a special programme. They also welcome Zen nuns from different monasteries, to stay with them for three months. But they didn't know what to do with the request of this Dutch girl, asking to stay for a week and live and meditate with them. Luckily they said yes.

It was a long journey from Berlin to Tokyo airport to Nagoya by train. Another metro and a 20 minutes’ walk later and there I was, in this beautiful and peaceful monastery.

As I was living with them, it was important I followed their schedule. Of course I agreed, though it meant my days would look like this:


I was fine with the schedule, but could I first please have a shower? It had been a long journey there.

I was referred back to the schedule.

Sorry, today no shower. Tomorrow shower.

Sure, but maybe as I haven't washed myself for two days, and travelled all the way here, a shower would be a beneficial thing...

“Sorry, today no shower.... Actually, we need to hurry now, time for dinner.

I sighed. But quickly forgot the shower as I learnt the many rituals that come with the dinner.

I'm given a beautiful set of little bowls wrapped in a white napkin, holding together another napkin, chopsticks and a cleaning stick.

Its an elaborate process. First you use the beautiful set of plates: three different size cups, then the wooden cleaning stick is placed between the two smaller bowls, on which you rest the chopsticks. As they start their ritual, I try to copy them as smoothly as I can.

Two nuns take care of filling up the main bowl, the rest of the food is given from the front to the back. When a bowl of food is approaching, you put your hands in prayer pose, holding one hand in this position when you accept the bowl.

When everyone has all their bowls filled up, small prayers are done and a silent meal is following. Friendly faces are looking at me from time to time. Checking if I'm ok.

As all their food comes from donations, they feel it's their duty to eat everything thats on their plate. This 800-year tradition can't be broken.

So, when I dont finish my bowl of milky sticky rice, there is a lot of talking in Japanese. Finally, one of the nuns puts the bowl under the table. Relief washes over, the idea of eating that bowl makes me feel sick.

At the end of dinner, more rituals take place. Cleaning the bowls first with tea, then with water. It is not easy to follow them all, but their warm faces smile and they slow down, so I can see how its supposed to be done. The hardest part is to put the napkin back in the right way, holding your hands and wrapping the napkin around, so that it looks pretty again.

These ceremonies are very meaningful to them, and are all done in peace and silence. I feel a bit nervous to do everything right and not to offend anyone. The floor is very hard, and the seated position is not comfortable to maintain. I feel a bit relieved when dinner is over.

They ask me if I can help with cleaning up in the kitchen. I start with the dishes, happy to help but suddenly really craving a shower.

When the kitchen is clean, I return to my room and wait there until evening Zazen starts: the evening meditation.

Then nun that speaks good English comes to my room. She addresses the incident of the bowl of sticky milky rice I failed to eat.

Please, we all need to finish all the food, please finish.

I agree in the future to finish my food.

As an exception, they had agreed that I, as a lay person, was still allowed to meditate with them in Sodo, the meditation room.

Earlier that day, they had explained the rituals of entering the room, where my seat would be and how to take your seat.

As best as I could, I tried to apply all that was told earlier. I go to enter the sacred room, but doubt creeps in. Was it the left or right foot that was meant to go first? No one is in front of me to copy.

I enter with my right foot, yet a quick glance on the nuns’ face was enough to tell me I had taken the wrong foot. Next time, I would enter with my left foot, the one next to the doorframe.

The room is hot and humid, 35 degrees with no air-conditioning. We sit in lotus pose for about one hour. It’s hard to meditate with sweat dripping from my face and my back.

After about 40 minutes, I noticed my leg is sleeping. Knowing moving it won't make it much better I try to meditate through the pain.

After the rituals, I go to my room and quickly go to sleep. The next day starts at 3.50AM.

After the morning meditation and the 1-hour ceremony that follows, I receive the instructions with which cleaning rituals, I should clean the floor daily where I’m staying at. Which means more purifying, as it's already perfectly clean, being cleaned daily.

Routine quickly sets in. Breakfast: more rice, rice, rice, noodles and vegetables. Then we work in the garden.

Lunch: more rice, rice, rice, noodles and vegetables…. Then I have a lesson in Japanese tea ceremonies. Wow.

I start to feel already a shift. This is a really special experience. It’s amazing I’ve been invited to be part of their everyday lives. There’s no evening ceremony, as the tea ceremony took much longer than planned. We go straight to dinner.

When I’m resting in my room, after cleaning the kitchen, I’m told my much-desired shower will have to wait another day, as the nun had made a mistake with the schedule.

Do I really want to be here I ask myself? It’s just one week I tell myself. I can leave anytime. And I head to the evening meditation.

I have this moment of realisation. I don’t remember exactly when it takes place. It’s a strong feeling of fulfilment, the desire to help these lovely nuns and to follow their rules and routines.

I realise, it’s the same in life. When you just accept life as it comes, embrace it, love it, don’t try to change, control or fix it, just go with the flow, happiness is there. I feel incredibly thankful for being there. For this amazing lesson. To feel the happiness flow through my being.

I’m helping to clean-up and a big smile appears on my face. A nun looks at me and laughs as if she fully understands what I just felt.

Imagine if we all stayed in a monastery once a year? Felt the shift, from being so spoiled in our everyday life. Maybe, try it the next time you are asked to do something you don’t like, embrace it. Feel lucky for that lesson to accept life as it comes, as you will figure out that life is beautiful every way around. Just choose to love it.