Towards the end of Basho’s classic Narrow Road to the Deep North, the poet-monk arrives at Eihei-ji: “I thought it…a miracle that the Priest Dogen had chosen such a secluded place for the site of the temple.”
As with the trails I have walked, the temple is more accessible these days. Built in 1244 in an untamed forest between mountains, much has changed since then. A bus runs sixteen kilometres inland from Fukui, ascending the valley of the Nine-Headed Dragon River to the steep village that has accumulated at the temple’s gates.
The valley is narrow and the wind greets me; its gusting force making me check for firm footing, squint my eyes for protection, and hold on to my hat for fear of never seeing it again.
The cloudy sky is mottled - black and white and black all over. Its lofty canvas moves quickly, pushed by a breath blowing persistently from beyond the horizon. The sun peeks out, winking with its warm touch, and then I am back under the monochrome kaleidoscope that is turning, turning, turning.
Dogen chose this location in part because of its rough weather, for he saw it as an antidote to the lackadaisical state of Zen in Kyoto at the time. A little discomfort aids the process of waking up, and a hard wind like this is a slap across the face like the famous koan, “Mu!”
I lean forward, to both keep from falling over and find my steps towards the gate. A wooden plaque with Kanji characters receives me: “Only those concerned with the problem of life and death should enter here. Those not completely concerned with this problem have no reason to pass this gate.”
There is a saying in Zen: practice like your hair is on fire. It implies that time is of the utmost importance and there is not a moment to waste with half hearted effort. It also applies to temple chores.
I’ve arrived mid morning, and it clearly is the chores window of time on the daily schedule. Monks are striding with purpose, carrying buckets and brooms as they earnestly scrub outdoor corridors until they shine. I know this industrious rush from attending past retreats - one hour on the schedule between sits and liturgy (and meals and sleep), with not a moment to spare. I’ll wager there’s someone scrubbing the showers right now too.
This training temple is one of the strictest in Soto Zen; ritualized practice yielding efficient results. They don’t accept western students anymore - their bodies having been deemed not up for the required rigorous sits on the ground. And so I am an outsider today, day-tripping through their halls with a set of rules: I am not to speak to any of the monks, nor to take any photos of them. Once again, a fly on the wall.
A huge log is suspended with rope under an open-sided shelter built to hold it. Pulling it back as far as he can muster, a young monk releases it to strike an even larger bell. The heavy vibrations fill the monastery and beam out - through the town and beyond into the world.
The sound fades and the grounds are quiet now. The monks have disappeared from the halls.
Shhp. Shhp! shhhhhPPP…! The calm of the temple is interrupted by the rustling of plastic bags everywhere: in the hallways, the corridors, the ceremony rooms. While each of us “flies on the wall” are shuffling around in socks, we are also all carrying our shoes in the requisite bags given to us on the way in. I wonder: is this all part of a wider ploy that the monks use to keep an ear out for visitors?
Moments later another vibration emanates from behind the door of the Sodo Hall - drums and bells, and finally voices. Some of the few Japanese words I am familiar with are being called out in unison: the Heart Sutra.
Fifteen minutes later the final bell is rung and silence reverberates in the surrounding valley, the wind now sweeping the words and intentions out into the world.
Dogen’s teachings no longer reside solely at Eihei-ji; they have taken to the swirling wind, whispering insights to those willing to listen and occasionally delivering hard slaps as a reminder to wake up.
The Zen Night Chant is recited at the end of each day - here at Eihei-ji, in temples across all countries, and by lay practitioners out in the world. It is a pertinent reminder of the potential of our lives and a challenge to rise up to it:
Life and death are of supreme importance.
Time passes swiftly and opportunity is lost.
Let us awaken. Awaken!
Do not squander your life.