FANTASTIC VOYAGE: Becoming a monk

Asai family photo

ON A MISSION FOR BUDDHA — Jeff Asai and wife Yae Hosokawa with their children Madoka (L) and Yui.
photo courtesy of Jeff Asai

Waking up at 5:30 a.m. has never been my thing. And waking up in a temple, throwing on monk robes and saying Buddhist chants for an hour on my knees when it’s snowing outside is also not usually my thing; but it’s what I found myself doing last winter.

A couple of years ago, I wrote in the Nichi Bei that I decided to take over my wife’s family temple in Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan.

As a Yonsei from Northern California’s Bay Area, the decision was a difficult one. But in the words of a wise man (not the Buddha, but Will Smith): “There is no plan B. Plan B just detracts from plan A.” So I found myself preparing to enter the monkhood (one word, not two).

In my sect of Buddhism, there are a few different ways to get a license, but the easiest is to take special training; four two-week training sessions spread out over two years, topped off with a final three-week course including the ordination ceremony.

As I mentioned earlier, it involves early mornings, snow, and sitting in the grueling position called seiza (on your knees) for extended periods of time. We also had to turn in our cell phones, and weren’t allowed any contact with the outside world. No TV, radio or Internet, etc. That by itself was an interesting experience.

One person I trained with said: “I wish we could have at least kept our cell phones …” To which another guy in our group said: “It’s better this way. If we had our cell phones, none of us would be talking to each other.” Which I think was an interesting but true assessment.

But overall, the training wasn’t half as exotic as I thought it would be; (no praying under raging waterfalls, or taking walks in bamboo forests) but rather a practical crash course in everything we’d need to know to become reasonably decent looking monks.

In fact, I was pretty upset that we weren’t given philosophical points to debate, or allotted time to ponder the Buddha’s words. But during the training, the guides told us that the only thing they could work on was form. Basically, that a lot of the teachings aren’t something that you can just be told and forced to memorize in a couple weeks. Rather they take a lifetime of contemplation and really need to be experienced, not taught. So in lieu of telling us a teaching and having us meditate, we worked on how to properly put on the robes, how to walk, how to stand, sit, how to offer incense, etc. We received lectures on history, and Buddhist theory. And we were tested on various things such as reciting scriptures, and folding the monk robes.

The most difficult part of it for me was that my Japanese is not too strong, so following the lectures was quite difficult. We were also given written tests based on the lectures, which of course had to be written in Japanese. The other difficult part was sitting in seiza for an extended period of time. It’s quite painful on your feet, and even 10 months after my first training, the shape of my foot has changed. I have a large bump on my feet where the skin has grown extra thick to accommodate putting all my weight there for a long time. And I guess the other hard part was that the schedule was so tightly regimented that there was no time to relax. A trainer was always watching us, whether we were cleaning the temple, or eating. From 5:30 in the morning to 10 at night, we were constantly being monitored.

The experience was a truly precious one, and I learned a lot. Being disconnected from the world, I was able to contemplate life a lot more than when I’m at home and surrounded by sources of entertainment. Because it’s hard to follow all the Japanese, I’m half-dreading my next training session, but half-looking forward to it, because it’ll give me some time to unplug from the world.

For a New Year’s resolution, I’d recommend trying to unplug from Facebook, e-mail, etc. for a little and spending more time with the people around you. As for me, I’m going to hunker down on some Japanese books that I’ve been putting off and get some studying done so I can better appreciate the lectures I get at training. I hope everyone has a great and safe New Year!

Jeff Asai, a Yonsei originally from Northern California’s South Bay Area, writes from the town of Asuka, Nara Prefecture, Japan, where he is teaching English. He can be reached via e-mail at jeffasai@gmail.com.

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