Saturday, February 4, 2012

Okayama, Japan

Takuhatsu, Sogenji Monastery. Resident monks beg for alms at a Zen temple in Okayama, Japan.

The first stop on my trip was Sogenji. Sogenji is a Zen temple and monastery in Okayama, Japan, where the roshi (Zen teacher) carries out his mission to teach Zen to Westerners. As you can see, most of the residents there are non-Japanese, primarily Americans and Europeans. During my time studying abroad in Japan, I had the opportunity to stay at Sogenji for one month during our school spring break. Although I was not allowed to go to individual audiences with the roshi (sanzen, the heart of direct Zen training) at that time, the experience was ... indescribable. I returned to Sogenji to live and train for three months at the end of 2007, and in November of that year I began to receive sanzen. I have since been back a number of times, and try to stay for a couple of weeks every time I visit Japan.

There are no commercially printed cards of Sogenji (it's hard enough to find cards of Okayama). I had these cards printed. The photograph is from one of the Sogenji monks, and the design of the card is mine. (I originally had 100 of these printed, but I have been sending them in postcrossing, and the rest of the ones I had, I left for the people at Sogenji to use. I am going to have more printed, so if you would like one, leave me a comment.)

Takuhatsu is indeed the practice of begging for alms. The monks go out into the community three times per month for the purpose of collecting donations. They wear the robes of ordained Zen monks (even those who are not ordained do so for takuhatsu only), and special sandals and hats, and carry begging bags with the name of Sogenji on the front. At each house or place of business, one of the monks stands in front and chants "hō" three times. Often, someone comes out and places money or rice in the begging bag, and for each donation, the monk chants a special takuhatsu sutra. The head monk collects all the money when they return to the temple, and it is used to buy tofu and other necessary supplies.

I also had the opportunity to go on takuhatsu at Sogenji. I don't have a photo of takuhatsu-me on this computer, so instead, here is a photo of the others going on takuhatsu, on a day I did not go (2007).

This year, I was at Sogenji for winter solstice, Christmas, and New Year's, all of which are celebrated in various ways. Here is a photo from this year's winter solstice feast. Winter solstice comes shortly after two intensive meditation retreats, and they have a huge party. Although for most of the year, meals consist largely of food that is donated or grown at the temple (a lot of potatoes, eggplant, and cabbage, along with a lot of food that is about to turn moldy or already is partly rotten), on solstice, everyone is allowed to make their own favorite dish from their country or culture, and the roshi, as a sort of holiday gift, buys all the necessary ingredients. Since Sogenji is home to people from all over the world, the feast is truly something to behold. The dishes barely all fit on the table.

Tojitoya 2011

New Year's is a big deal in Japan. Families gather on the morning of the 1st to eat traditional New Year's cuisine, featuring mochi (pounded glutinous rice cake). Mochi is also used for New Year's decorations, along with pine branches (the word for pine in Japanese is a homonym for the word for "end" as in "end of the old year"). At Sogenji, they decorate with -- and eat -- a lot of mochi. It took us around six hours to pound it all.

Pounding the cooked rice into mochi

Post-pounded mochi

Forming the pounded mochi into balls.

On New Year's Eve, the bell in the bell tower is rung 108 times, culminating at midnight. Actually we did not ring the bell; instead, we greeted guests from the community who came to ring it, and we chanted the bell sutra each time.

Over the first few days of January, Japanese people make their first shrine or temple visit of the new year, called hatsumōde. At Sogenji, most of the monks rest or watch movies during this time, except during their tea-serving shift, when they wear their nice clothes and serve matcha and sweets to guests of the roshi. I had never served matcha before and had to learn the proper way to mix it, deliver it, and take away the dishes again at the end.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to experience this season at Sogenji. As always, it is an incredible gift to be a part of the One Drop sangha, which I hope to never, ever take for granted.

This stamp is #9 in the 10th issue of a series called ふるさと - 心の風景 (hometowns - scenes in my heart). This issue showcases scenes from Nagano, Niigata, and Yamanashi prefectures, and this stamp, from Yamanashi, is entitled "富士を見える町" (town with a view of Mt. Fuji). I bought the whole souvenir sheet just to bring home for me, so I will probably post that at some point.

1 comment:

  1. Great photos and narrative. Very interesting to read about your experience at Sogenji. :)