When I first watched the Zen Buddhist monks living a life of silence and solitude at Eihei-ji Temple, I thought they must be super-willed special people, different from the rest of us. But at a hostel in December, I met a Zen Buddhist monk in Kobe, who liked drinking, watching films and had a great sense of humour. So now I have even more respect for the men following such a strict way of life at Eijei-ji Temple,as they must want to share a joke, to watch a film or to drink the night away, but they can’t. That’s what makes their way of life impressive; they are just human like the rest of us.
Eiheji Temple is one of the largest Zen Buddhist training temples in Japan, and it is a natural haven for both trainee monks and for visitors. The temple complex is set in a shady valley with tall cedar trees, interspersed between the buildings. It is a place which seems bigger than it is, with a maze of corridors on different levels giving a spacious feel to it. Many of the corridors are open-air, and it feels like you’re walking outside. As well as trees towering above the temples, wood is used everywhere; the floor is made of it, the columns holding up the roof are made of it and the handrails which you can use to guide yourself down steep stairs are made from wood. Every part has been smoothed to perfection, from years of cleaning and years of feet gliding across it.
The monks wear black robes, sandals with no socks and have a shaven head. It was in April when I last visited and I was still wearing thick socks and a woolly scarf. At first, I think they must be cold, but then I looked at their skin and their cheeks were almost glowing. Life in a monastery, working outside and eating only vegetarian food must be a healthy one.
On my last visit here, I was showing my mum around, and she had fallen under the charm of the temple and was taking another look around. I waited on a bench and watched as a man was practising ringing a large gong. The sound vibrated through the air, competing with the sound of rushing water which trickles through ponds and waterfalls. The monastery is just a human-inhabited extension of the forest.
Tourists invade the harmony and peace of the monastery. With brightly-coloured anoraks and children running around, the peace is rippled, but perhaps this daily filtering in of the outside world, maintains the balance of this temple. The monks are reminded of the vices and temptations of the outside. Attractive female visitors must be a test for 120 monks living in celibacy. As I watch tourists cross boundaries to take the best photo, monks walk gracefully in a straight line, turning to bow at an altar in the distance.
They all have just one tatami mat to sleep, eat and pray on. Privacy is only in the mind. I wonder when these monks relax and unwind. I doubt sake is smuggled in, or mid-night binges on steak or sushi are had. Perhaps for the time they are here, they forego the pleasures of the outside and instead opt for having a clear mind, a healthy body and no distractions, apart from a few tourists documenting their life through a camera lens.
Walking around the temple complex, I have the same sense of awe at this sacred place as I do when I walk in a cathedral, or look up at the ceiling of a mosque. Even when you don’t have any religious beliefs, the atmosphere of a religious community can be enough to stir deep thoughts inside of you. This temple is so far from the bright lights and consumerist world of modern Japanese cities, it is like a breath of fresh air for the soul.
I bowed my head at the monks walking past, respecting their choice of life, but I still remember the monk at a bon-enkai in Kobe who drank me under the table.