Steve Tainton

The Zen art of teaching English

Dharma, Zendo and all that stuff

I start my day in the same fashion as my fellow practitioners of the Way by rising at the precise hour of somewhere between nine and twelve. Upon waking we greet the new day with a salutation that could be collectively heard across The Land of the Rising Sun, “Oh my head!” Following the morning salutation, we began a cleansing ritual that consists of drinking copious amounts of water in order to purify our bodies of toxins that we might have received during the previous night’s, what do you call it, err – meditation. After performing said ritual I find myself with an hour or two of free time in which I can engage in such worldly pursuits as looking at the forum and amuse myself with the latest rants of former monks for whom monastic life was too harsh. Soon, however, I must iron my ceremonial robes (shirt) and don them before affixing my sash (necktie). I then set out for the temple to begin the day’s practice. I walk to the local station and board the train. All eyes are upon me. Doubtlessly the masses are filled with reverence for me and what I represent – the Dharma (Ok, it’s just English). I pay them no heed, mine is a higher calling and certainly their stares only serve to remind me of such.

Arriving at the Zendo I go through yet another ritual whereby I punch a time clock (this is purely ceremonial, I receive alms by the lesson, not the hour, though the temple elders assure me this is necessary for taxation reasons). As I am the head abbot at this particular temple my work begins before the other novice monks. My first task is to arrange the day’s schedule. In my sect, there are no set classes. Laypeople can come in at their choosing by reserving a session in advance, meaning that our classes alter daily. All of this is recorded on a spreadsheet that is hung out in the back room – think of it as our divine scroll. I always arrange aforementioned scroll a day in advance, but invariably members of the nunnery (all-female Japanese staff) change it in a bid to drive the head abbot to anger. I have detected their ruse. This is only a test. It is one thing to meditate on patience, another to practice it. I will remain centered as I rearrange the scroll. The nuns will not get the best of me. As I work hastily to get the scroll in order the novice monks enter the Zendo. I hear their grumblings at not yet having the scroll posted. Finally, I finish. We are ready to begin the teachings, but wait, in all of this I have barely had time to acquaint myself with the day’s lessons and the gong shall sound in several seconds. This might be a problem for a novice, but I’m the abbot, intimately familiar with the sutras (lesson materials) and can recite them by heart. I look at the laypersons’ files and determine that today will we meditate on Chapter 6, Verse 24. The gong sounds. We move into the classrooms began reciting the sutras. Mine is old, but precious lesson, “Today, we are going to talk about travel advice. Hirotaka, have you traveled to a fo-reign count-ry?” My chant is well practiced and the laypeople seem to understand the teaching. My reading of the sutras is usually quite formal and arranged, but today I venture out of the routine with a short sermon on a recent pilgrimage to a sushi bar. The laymen are impressed that a monk would actually eat a sentient being (or is that I’m foreign and they are impressed that a foreigner would actually eat sushi?)

Let me say a word about the laypeople. In the afternoon our worshippers are made up largely of bored housewives who have been known to occasionally flirt with the monks. If this happens, it’s my duty to remind the monks of their vows (anti-socialization policy). The very essence of our practice could be jeopardized by such going-ons. Several monks in the past have had to leave the Zendo for said infractions, luckily none under my watch. The other groups of laypeople who frequent afternoon sessions seem to be mainly retirees and the unemployed (this is true; the Japanese government is encouraging those with stagnant careers to study the Way by reimbursing a fair portion of the temple collections). In any case, it’s not until the evening that the friendly salaryman pops in for his dose of spirituality. Unfortunately, the salarymen often make for bad worshippers as they are overworked and tired, often forgetting even the most basic sutras (like the past tense), but I digress.

So, my lesson finishes forty-five minutes after it began, again sounded by the gong (all right, it’s only an annoying bell). I must move quickly. There are only ten minutes between sessions, barely enough time to write file comments, reprimand the nuns for some petty infraction, and relieve myself of the morning’s purification water. Back in the breach and fired out again. I do this four times in the afternoon, break for one lesson and then back for another four. However, as the head abbot I have planning periods where I am supposed to plot the direction of our temple, thinking of ways to improve our practice. I prefer to spend this time gazing upon the city before me and meditating on my upcoming move to the pure land (Thailand).

You see, the practice of the Way, in Japan, has become decadent and impure. Bloated on decent salaries and easy visa regulations, our monks have lost their higher sense of purpose. I have heard through the grapevine (internet) that the practice in Thailand remains pure and focused. In that Kingdom, I am told, practitioners of the Way are paid only in alms of sticky rice and water (what else could one afford on 30,000Bht a month?) Truly these monks must be devoted! So, I intend to shed my fancy title and indulgent paycheck to join them as a novice monk -one should never lose the beginner’s mind. In the meantime I doodle on piece of paper pretending to work lest the nuns see me and accuse me of laziness.

The day passes quickly except for an agonizing lesson period spent in the confessional (conversation lounge) where I am peppered with questions about my origin and formative years before joining the temple. At least when reciting the sutras I can avoid thoughtless questions, but in the Q&A session I am forced to make the laypeople contemplate their interpretation of existence with a series of Koans (Zen riddles) in answer to their inquiries. “Where’s your favorite place in Japan?” - “My apartment!” “What brought you to Japan?” - “A plane.” “Can you eat Japanese sushi?” - “I have teeth.” They are perplexed, but it is my role to awaken their minds, not to feed their hunger for facile answers.

Finally the last gong rings and the day is done. The monks quickly bow (clock) out of the temple as I check the next day’s scroll. It looks all right. I bid the nuns farewell – they work late into the night. I join the novice monks outside the temple and we all proceed to the izakaya.

If school is our temple, then think of the izakaya as our rock garden. We recite the sutras because we must, but in the rock garden our creativity really comes through. In the izakaya we sit around a low table with foot wells underneath. The waitresses bring us our… tea; yes that’s it, tea. We turn on the Karaoke machine and, like the good monks we are, belt out a tune. Some may find this outlet of emotion in opposition with our practice of calm, inner peace, but I feel that we have all earned the right to several cups of tea and a hearty song after a long days teaching – we are human after all (though the looks we get from some of the other patrons might disabuse one of this notion).

And so, after several cups of tea too many, I board the last train and return home. The phone is ringing. It’s my girlfriend in Thailand reprimanding me for my late night out – again. Like a Master with a stick whacking his pupil on the shoulders for sloppy meditation, so I am whacked by her tongue. “Why you stay out so late?” “You go with lady?” “Karaoke in Thailand only for man looking lady, na?” I prostrate myself symbolically before her with profuse apologies thanking her for teaching me the lesson of humility that I may not be bound by ego. I am reminded that as I pass through the universe and this journey we call life it is inevitable that I leave ripples in my wake. We are all bound by Karma and to exist is to create it. So I bid her farewell for the night and lay down to dreams of the Pure Land where all monks are brothers united in sincere practice and a diet of sticky rice and water. See you soon, brothers.


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