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A message from Nomon Tim: Being On Pilgrimage

Thursday, May 02, 2024 5:34 PM | Program Administrator (Administrator)

From the May 2024 Red Cedar Zen newsletter:

From Nomon Tim

We're just back from our two week sangha pilgrimage to Japan. I'm grateful especially to Kandō Rei Greene who dusted off her Japanese and teamed up with me to plan the trip. We based it on a combination of my memories having gone with Norman Fischer and a cohort of peers in 2010, contacts in Japan I've made in the ensuing years, and her interests. We also sought out opportunities to do hiking pilgrimage given our sangha's long time commitment to that practice.

What came together was pretty wonderful. Sure: a few things didn't work out quite as planned, but most did, and the feeling of being in Japan, immersing ourselves in the culture, and also experiencing the overlaps between Japanese Sōtō Zen Buddhism and other Buddhisms (Rinzai Zen, Tendai, and Shingon) as well as the prevalence of the nature spirit based Shinto religion was deepening, informative, and clarifying. 

I come back feeling mostly validated in our approach. We're in a very different situation here than the traditional shrines, temples, and training monasteries of Japan. And while Zen in the West is slowly growing, Zen in Japan is steadily shrinking. A Sōtō monk told us that while there are 14,000 Sōtō Temples, there are only 7,000 priests. And we saw that the grand Rinzai Zen training monasteries in Kyoto are mostly museums thronged by tourists enjoying their impressive buildings, statues, and art. A Rinzai monk told us that most of the Kyoto monasteries do have formal monastic training still happening, but the groups of trainees are down into the single digits. And I was surprised to learn that Red Cedar Zen in Bellingham offers more opportunities for weekly zazen practice open to anyone than just about any of the thousands of temples in Kyoto.

A wonderful being-at-the-source moment for me was at our visit to Eiheiji - the central training monastery of Sōtō Zen established by Dōgen in the 1240's. We were assigned a monk in residence as tour guide who was joined by a teacher from a nearby temple who served as translator. We got to tour the buildings on the afternoon of our arrival, with the exception of the monk's hall (Sōdo) which is private. 

And then on the next morning we rose early, had zazen with our monk hosts at the guest Zendo in the visitor's building and then we were on our way to be guests at Eiheij's morning service in the Hatto (Dharma Hall).

Most of our group sat on benches at the edge of the tatami mat-covered ritual area and as we were leaving for the Dharma Hall, our hosts looked me over in my robes (and new okesa!) and decided to invite me to participate in the "guest monks" section. I had to be properly dressed (I must've just passed, whew) and able to sit in seiza on the tatami as there are no cushions used (I was just able to pull that off).

I was a little nervous but, thankfully, one of our hosts came up to whisper in my ear whenever I had to do anything, helped me find my place in the chant book, and even adjusted my robes once when I was in a bit of a disarray. 

It was so powerful and affirming to be a part of the morning service at Eiheji in this way. A service that has happened pretty much every day in that building since 1244 with Dōgen himself as the first doshi. (Or a previous version of that building - those wooden temple buildings tend to burn down and get rebuilt every few hundred years).

One highlight: Daitetsu-san (my host) came to whisper in my ear, "Nomon-san: next chant is Dai Hi Shin Dharani" and handed me a chant book. "Ah, I know this one," I was able to reply. And how wonderful to chant from my heart this familiar sutra with 150 monks.

But...back to the steady decline of Zen in Japan: our English speaking host shared that when he was there in training 10 years ago there were 250 monks and now there are 150. 

The whole experience felt both validating to me and deepening of the joyful sense of obligation and responsibility I feel to keep this tradition alive. Thank you for being a part of that journey and "project" in whatever way you are!

Nomon Tim

p.s. I'll be including stories and pictures from our Japan trip in my Dharma talks on Thursday evenings and I've been posting about the trip on our Facebook page.

The group below Mount Hiei on our way to meet Dai Ajari sama, a "marathon monk"

Nomon Tim Burnett is Red Cedar Zen Community's Guiding Teacher

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