In my hometown, there was a cafe I only visited once but it left a deep impression because it is, as I understand, run by Orthodox monks. It provided a cozy meeting space and a library of books so as to contemplate wisdom with a freshly caffeinated mind. Not usually the kind of place you’d expect to run into monks, but at least in the US, if you’re interested you can usually find some way to chat with a religiously ordained person.
In Japan, however, many people are curious about Buddhism but do not feel they can just wander into a temple and start asking questions. Would they be bothering the monks with their curiosity? Would just a quick try at zazen meditation be okay instead of making a big commitment to it? Which sect of Buddhism would you even know to go to? What are the differences in what they believe in each temple? Typically these practical unknowns may keep people from going out of their way to find out, and they’ll just assume that funerals may be their only chances to see Buddhism in action. That’s where the emphasis is placed, right?
Across the country, it’s somewhat rare to have a chance just to chill out and casually talk with a Buddhist monk (which in some sects makes no differentiation between male and female) or drill them with low-level or high level questions about anything from their daily routine to what happens after we die. It’s even more rare to gather monks from different sects together in the same place for this kind of discussion.
Though the Izumo part of the San’in region places a lot of cultural emphasis on the Shinto side of things (and there are historical reasons for that), we still have our share of Buddhist temples and they still take over on spiritual sides of life experience that Shinto doesn’t typically cover. Recently, Matsue has started hosting Obousan Cafe, or “Monk Cafe.”
For now, it’s still being held in the Kiharu Cafe space in the Matsue History Museum, on Saturday nights when the museum is closed for the day and all has gone quiet on the surrounding historic streets that teem with tourists during the day. On the night I attended, many of the participants were from outside of Matsue. Before we started I made small talk with a few girls from Tottori, and at my discussion table later on there was even someone visiting from Yokohama who came to take part. We were joined by four monks who were happy to have the chance to meet with us.
The evening started at 8:00pm with some zazen (seated Zen meditation). I’ve seen some Buddhist texts in English translations and have made no sense of sutras as I’ve heard recited in Japanese, but there was no such detailed instruction of scripture. Instead, the monk from Housenji Temple instructed us in the Soutou Sect way of zazen: simply do it.
Usually, this very simple (and therefore difficult) form of meditation is done facing a wall, but instead we had the night view of the low-lit Izumo style Japanese garden I’ve always enjoyed seeing during the day from the cafe. With your glance towards the floor in front of you, however, you’re not supposed to get distracted by it. With no instruction on what to meditate on but simply instructed to breath so as to calm our hearts, the monk rang a chime to signal the start of meditation, and the room went silent.
When’s the last time you sat still in 15 minutes of silence?
Yeah, that’s what I thought. While I can’t say my mind was completely still (ha! far from it!), it was probably closer than I usually get in my day-to-day busy life. However, probably in large part due to my martial arts and tea ceremony practice, 15 minutes wasn’t too difficult for me to handle–I know that in the past it definitely would have made me more antsy. After the monk rang the chime again, we turned around to face him for a brief break. He acknowledged very calmly that it may have felt short to some people, but may have felt excruciating to those whose feet fell asleep (again, tea ceremony practice kicked in and I was okay!). Although discipline and regular zazen practice would allow people to be much more effective at calming their minds, there was no striving to “get better at it” or anything like that–once again, our goal was just to do it.
The second period of meditation only lasted 10 minutes in the interest of time constraints. I was feeling very calm, but a bit sleepy. Had I have closed my eyes I probably would nodded off! This is not the style of zazen in which the head priest whacks your shoulder with a paddle to rescue you from drowsiness.
Quietness felt like a special experience and even as I was thinking I can totally do this at home!, the monk leading us practically read my mind: “You might think you could do this at home, but it turns out to be much more difficult that you would think. You would need a lot of willpower, so it’s easier to train yourself in the right setting.”
Yeah… he’s probably right. Also, if you ask, it seems monks can very easily get you in touch with their zazen groups. I think having other people around also helped me stay focused–accountability, you know?
After this, the staff quickly arranged the tables and an array of local wagashi. Then the monks joined us at our different table groups and began serving us tea while introducing themselves, speaking in hushed tones and unhurried paces, though obviously excited to have a listening audience. I barely had a chance to think of some questions of my own since the Japanese participants in my group had already prepared a number of them and the monks were happy to elaborate at length, and I was content to simply listen for a while.
There were very interesting questions like, “are there ghosts, or do souls reincarnate right away? If that’s the case, then why do we celebrate O-bon or visit our family graves?” The details in the answers to such questions as this may differ from sect to sect and I don’t feel qualified to provide answers here seeing as I wasn’t taking notes, but the first monk I spoke with from Jiunji Temple of the Nichiren Sect, made sure to emphasize that it’s very much so for the sake of living people observing these customs as it would be for the spirits.
One thing he said that really stuck out to me was about the prayer beads. At least in Nichiren, the left hand represents the present world we live in and sin in, and the right hand represents the unseen world. The prayer beads are kept on the left hand as a seal on all the evils of the world, and when you put your palms together in prayer, this is signifying a meeting of the two worlds. Whether you keep the beads in your left hand while doing so or slip them over both hands varies by sect. The design of the beads also varies, and he pointed out that the long cords on his beads are used for handling objects that should not be handled directly.
Halfway through the talk session the monks rotated, though participants were free to move around to talk with whichever monk they wanted to. I finished the evening speaking with a higher-ranked male monk and lower ranked female monk from Junkouji Temple, which is of the Joudoshin Sect. (To organize these different sects in your head and learn more of the history, please see the flow-chart on this article by Mami on Tokugu.) We talked a bit about their prayer beads, too. While some are build differently for different genders based on the size of their hands and how they would customarily handle them, many other details are just according to personal preference. The higher-ranked monk simply liked his wooden beads, and the lower-ranked monk chose amber beads because they aren’t so cold to handle in winter.
I hadn’t asked much of anything yet, but for lack of any pressing theological questions, I asked what got them interested in the religious life. The lower-ranked monk was very excited to answer this question and tell her personal story of discussing the breadth of Buddhism as a lifestyle through asking questions during a few funerals in her family. As she prattled on passionately, she caught herself when she saw the upper-class monk smiling patiently.
“I’m sorry! I just got so excited to finally be able to answer something! I’ve gone on too long, why don’t you speak?”
“No, no, go right ahead!”
“Haha, I’m embarrassed to be overstepping my sempai!”
As she continued on her soap box, she started preaching along the same lines are the Nichiren monk. “People usually think Buddhism only has to do with death, funerals, and the after-life,” they had said. “Actually, the teachings are more for how you should live your life, as it will affect your after-life! I wish more people took the time to learn more about it in their daily lives, rather than wait until someone dies before they visit a temple or talk to a monk. That’s why I’m so glad to see everyone here asking questions–we’re happy to teach.”
There are tentative plans to continue another round of the meditation and talk sessions, and if possible they’d like to hold it in a temple to have more people take part, provided they can still have monks of different sects attend (there will probably be more info on the homepage or Facebook page). As it develops, the staff is very interested in how to work around the language barrier to welcome more foreign visitors so they can have a low-pressure experience like this with minimal time commitment. While discussion is definitely easier if you can follow the ebbs and flows of it in Japanese, I don’t think the zazen would be a problem for anyone. After all, you can learn the correct postures just be being observant even if you don’t understand the words being used, and after that, it’s not even about words–it’s just about being.
…being quiet, anyway.