Our plan was to ride our bicycles to the Zen Monestary – 20 km outside of Kyoto. However, it rained on our departure day, so we decided to leave the bikes at the Kyoto train station and to pick them up after the retreat.

The train ride out to Kameoka was breathtaking! The train went through the mountains and crossed beautiful rivers on high bridges. The monestary itself was in a tiny village, surrounded by rice fields.

The monestary at this point had four permanent residents. Roshi, the spiritual leader of the monestary, was traveling in Europe. In his absence, Gentoku Zurbriggen was running the place. The other residents were Congo, Bjorn and Dima. Last, the monestary had one guest, Jolanta, who was from Poland.

We knew, more or less, what we were getting into, as the daily schedule was listed on the Monestary’s web site: Getting up at five in the morning, meditation, lectures, chants, etc. But here came the first disappointment: While I was hoping for spiritual guidance during the reatreat, there wouldn’t be any lectures in August and September – summer break during Roshi’s absence. As frustrating was the fact that there was no real guidance for anything. If we did something wrong, it was pointed out harshly, and that was it. What could be done wrong? Not bowing when it was required, stepping forward with the wrong foot, sitting incorrectly, folding the napkin in the wrong way, putting the chopsticks down incorrectly, etc. By reprimenting rather than guiding, the atmosphere during ceremonies was harsh. It was supposed to be a humbling experience. But due to this behavior, I missed the spiritual atmosphere that a place like Suan Mokkh definitely had.

The atmosphere during non-ceremonial times was quite different. Gentoku, who during ceremonies never smiled a bit, was quite pleasant and approachable. Yet many answers were left open. In Zen, practice comes before the teachings. The student is supposed to give complete trust into the teacher, even if he doesn’t understand the reasons for practicing. In fact, I was pointed to the book Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel, a book that was high on my reading list anyway. For years, Herrigel practices miniscule aspecs of archery, without really understanding the reasons, trusting in his teacher.

This kind of trust in the teacher makes sense and is certainly required, once the commitment of staying years in a monestary is made. But for me, as a guest, trying to understand Zen, this approach just didn’t work for me. Without proper guidance, all I saw were empty rituals.

To make things worse, this retreat was not silent. The reatreat at Suan Mokkh was silent, because in Buddhism, “right speach” is very important. To prevent wrong speach, silence was required. Not so at this monestary. The talks and discussions were heated and awkward at times. Dima had the unpleasant habbit of never letting anybody finish a sentence. He and Jolanta were confirming each other in their superiority, and frankly, that kind of talk is at odds with spiritualty – at least in my opinion.

Still, I don’t regret having spent the time there. Now I know how monestary life feels like – this is an insight I could never have gained from just reading a book or watching a movie. Being there, being humbled or even humiliated is nothing that could be learned otherwise. I@can see how it can provide refuge for somebody who is lost. I can see how one can benefit from life there – although it takes years, not days or weeks, to benefit. The vegetarian food was great, and it felt nice to be part of it, to help in the kitchen or to clean house and garden. Bjorn was playing the flute most beautifully in the evenings. I am grateful for these insights.

Over the days, I developed a really bad cough and was constantly wet with cold sweat. I would have loved to spend a full week there, but considered my physical wellness more important than the spiritial experience. Which was a good thing – the doctor in Kyoto told me that my infection could easily have evolved into a Bronchitis – the last thing I needed on a trip like this. And I had a great experience with the doctor, Sakabe Yoshio, who treated me at his own clinic, the Sakabe International Clinic in Kyoto. He not only spoke English very well but also German, and he insisted on giving me an autographed copy of the book he wrote, Night Autopsy Room: Seven Tales of Life, Death, and Hope. This will be great travel reading.

1 Comment
  1. Bronchitis – Hi Michael,
    mit Spannung lese ich deine reports und verfolge euch im Geiste.
    Diesmal kam Enttäuschung herüber, aber ich denke auch soetwas
    gehört zum echten Leben. Hoffe, du hast dich vom Husten erholt und es ist keine Bronchitis oder Lungenentzündung geworden.
    Einer meiner Neffen hat 4 jahre auf Hawai in einem buddh. Kloster gelebt. Seit einem Jahr ist er zurück in Deutschland.
    Liebe Gruesse an Maha und noch eine schöne Reise mit vielen
    spannenden und nachhaltigen Erlebnissen wünscht euch
    Annemarie