Five-Day Retreat at the Hermitage
My five-day retreat at Jeff’s hermitage was a gift that came as I was on my way home to the USA after completing three years of training at a Rinzai Zen temple in Japan. I had been passionately training my breath and concentration, but was often suppressing my emotions. Lacking understanding and effective tools, my efforts at one-pointed concentration frequently resulted in tension and insecurity. Jeff’s approach helped me to unravel my emotional blockage and strive forth into a settled several days of real zazen.
I came convinced that I could not exhale in a long, comfortable way unless I had worn myself out trying for a few days in a sesshin. Jeff taught me to naturally breathe to and from the ground, from the earth itself. He showed me how the whole universe is supporting us in our practice. His meditation instruction was a sorely needed contrast to the samurai-style zazen I was stuck in. I connected with this instruction because of its supportive feel and practical straightforwardness. It continues to be a key tool for me.
By the second day it was apparent to Jeff, and then to myself, that I was running from my emotions and therefore the present moment. I was trying to just sit on the earth and believe it would support me, but I was still overwhelmed with fear and tension from some unacknowledged blockage. In one of the one-on-one meetings with Jeff on my second day he asked: “Do you know what you are running from?” I didn’t know how to answer, but it sure was refreshing that he was asking directly and giving me practical guidance.
He showed me how to let it come all the way up, and then really let it go. In this way, I could get down to the real work. I then gave myself some time to inquire: “What am I afraid of? What am I running from?” Addressing my body tension and blocked breathing directly allowed me to give myself permission and time to try new tools and acknowledge blocked feelings. Jeff helped me to acknowledge the thoughts and feelings that needed to work themselves through in order to move on.
As a sensitive American female in my mid-twenties, I have had considerable difficulty following traditional Japanese zazen instruction. I am extremely grateful to have had a traditional Japanese Zen education that has whittled away and at times cracked apart my small-self delusions and introduced me to more broad, less self-centered consciousness. However, I was often suppressing emotions in order to fit into a Japanese monastic routine. Jeff’s advice to experience the emotion fully was articulated in a clear way that I could understand and use.
The following day my concentration did not flow forth immediately. I was still doing a fair amount of daydreaming and worrying. Jeff brought forth another tool for reigning in my wandering mind with the question: “What is lacking?” And if I have some deep experience of emptiness, then he suggested asking myself: “What remains?” If you fight your grasping, seeking mind, he said, you are only feeding it. When you stop feeding it, delusions dissolve of themselves.
I was very content, warm, and well fed in the hermitage, and visited by wonderful people who sometimes came to sit zazen. The question “What is lacking?” has become a precious concentration tool for weeding away the trivial thoughts that come from cravings and worries.
Jeff pointed out the problem of obsessing about a specific breathing technique. He warned me against mistaking any one technique for true Zen experience. In hindsight it seems that this should have been obvious to me, but my insecure thinking habits had me convinced that my breathing was just not adequate for zazen. This was an important turning point for me to let go of my obsession with the breath, and have more confidence in using the needed tools for gathering all into one. I found the tools he taught me to be effective, and once my concentration began to pick up momentum, I was pleased to experience that my three years of breathing and koan training had not been in vain.
When my concentration became stronger, the one-on-ones veered away from technique and directly into the living koan-questions of the moment. After a few years in a training temple in Japan, I had plenty of questions for Jeff as well. I was pleased to be able to ask my own clarifying questions and receive straightforward answers.
Jeff sent me off after my mostly solo retreat with the needed meditation tools and a deep sense of satisfaction. I have become more settled, more concentrated in a natural and comfortable way. Jeff’s parting words were a follow-up on “What is lacking?” and a response to my angst about the uncertain future I was heading into.
I hope this description of my experience will encourage readers to embark on a zazen retreat as soon as possible!
Raine W, U.S. (28).
Practice at the Hermitage
Which year was it? I only remember that it was before going to Sesshin at the monastery where I was ordained as a nun, and that I had many questions and doubts. This, after more than fifteen years in the monastery, having worked my way through innumerable koans, having held almost all positions in the temple and having been asked by the Roshi there to go out and set up and lead a place for practice. But I felt in no way ready to do so, partly because of doubts about perceived blind spots within the system and because of self-doubts that were triggered by my confusion. Fortunately I was honest enough to admit this.
I had met Jeff some years ago when I invited him to Hungary, and felt that he was sincere, honest, humble and no-nonsense. He seemed to know what he was doing, clearly was a very keen observer, and I sensed that he might be able to help me through what I was struggling with. So that year I took a week to sit in the hermitage and try to “go all the way.”
Jeff would usually come by twice a day to do one-on-one. Jeff was working, and kindly made time for this as his schedule allowed. We would sit for some time and then do one-on-one. It was obvious that he did not waste a minute. So, though desperate already, I felt even more obliged to really do my best.
As a result of this intensity, and with few distractions, all the stuff that was obstructing me seemed to bubble up, especially at night, keeping me awake, confused and sometimes anxious. During zazen I tried to sit all the way through, through both psychological states and Samadhi states. When something came up that my mind was not able to let go during zazen, I sometimes shared it with Jeff, which at times felt like a confession, after which I could let go more easily. At times I felt a bit guilty for “dumping my psychological stuff” on Jeff, but it did help me to work through it and let go.
After a few days the river, the people, the houses, everything appeared brilliantly clear and shining, at which point Jeff warned about getting attached to this state, and advised me to focus on making the practice constant. He sometimes brought little notes, quotes from masters of old, which warned about dangers on the way and matched where I was at. I began to sense his energy and presence several minutes before he actually appeared at the hermitage. At one point he made a sharp remark that seemed to turn the flow of mind, which, as I noticed only then, had still been going outwards, roundabout. From then on all I needed to “do” was get out of the way and allow things to drop, as they did of themselves.
So as not to obstruct the readers’ own practice, I will not go into any more detail here. But there is nothing esoteric about practice. It is not about having experiences. Ultimately there is not a thing Jeff can do for you or give to you, however precious his support may feel.
Try it, and see for yourself! But by all means, when the time is right, DO a retreat at the hermitage!
At times Jeff kindly took me out for a meal, an art exhibit or a walk. If at such a time you find yourself wondering: What is this guy doing taking me away from the practice? – Beware! You might be creating dualism here. As Hakuin writes: “Do not favor a quiet place, do not shun a busy place, but always set below your navel Joshu’s MU [or ONE, or whatever you are working with]. What principle is this? If you discard all emotions, concepts, and thoughts and inquire single-mindedly…” [from one of Jeff’s notes].
Over the years I have often returned to the hermitage to continue my practice, and have seen the hermitage used in many ways. For eighteen months one person was living and practicing there. At times several people stay there at the same time, which allows us to practice as a small sangha, inspiring, supporting and learning from each other. This also requires a minimum of rules and agreements, so as to not distract from what really needs to be done. Living and practicing together, cleaning and preparing for the Saturday Zazen meetings, these are opportunities to genuinely support each other selflessly, returning at least some of the grace we are receiving.
I really appreciate the immediacy, the kindness, warmth and care, as well as Jeff’s sharpness and uncompromising commitment to what needs to be done, pleasant or not.
What can be done to repay this kindness? A donation to the hermitage will be appreciated, but more than anything, as honestly and sincerely as you can, dive in! What greater joy can there be than seeing someone letting down their defenses, becoming truly sincere, vulnerable and honest. Letting go of all toys and distractions, seeing through to what really matters. No excuses, no nonsense. Then the real work is being done and the Way is right underfoot.
Amen. Sozui S, Germany (47)
2013 Hermitage Account
My experience shares many of the elements the others have written about in the hermitage guestbook. Practice at the hermitage is a valuable opportunity and I am very grateful to Jeff for providing it.
It was my first time in Japan. Throwing myself into the environment of Kyoto and the Hermitage contributed to me confronting myself. It was hard for me to concentrate in meditation because of the new and unique surroundings. Sitting an average of 6-7 hours a day, it didn’t take long for me to start having some really painful and uncomfortable sits. This is just an essential part of the practice though, studying pain and reactions to it. During a lot of the long sitting periods I thought, “Why do I put myself through this?” Despite some pain and discomfort in sitting, it was a great learning experience for me, and I would like to continually express thanks for the opportunity. It was a priceless, amazing experience. Jeff and his wife are very kind and hospitable people. Jeff portrays a great balance of seriousness and light-heartedness, directness and warmth.
One-on-ones with Jeff were my first somewhat regular practice meetings with a teacher. It seemed like Jeff was there to point me back inside myself like a mirror, help me see what I needed to see and wake up. My mind was racing a lot of the time. My ego was really fighting back against my practice. It was rough during the four-hour sits. But, looking back, it was perfect, and necessary for me.
Despite all my “troubles” in meditation, Jeff kept patiently pointing me back to the essential, what is right underfoot. He brought me back to present moment. It was a great experience. Jeff is humble and provides a container for the practice the way it should be, without all the unnecessary frills.
William C., U.S. (27)
4 Weeks at the Hermitage
I stayed nearly 4 weeks at the hermitage, from November to December in 2012, shortly after my graduation from university. “Not a monastery, not a guest house” says a text about it. It gives room and time to slowly sink into practice very naturally. It means staying right in the city, close to busy streets, temples, little shops and the Shores’ house. This lively mixture added a unique vitality to practice there.
If nobody else is staying at the hermitage, however, you will be living and sitting alone at times. Jeff and Fusako (and also her lovely parents) do their best to make you feel at home. But of course they have other things to take care of as well. Practicing on your own can be challenging, but it’s also a great chance to mature in various ways. And you are not completely alone! Jeff’s support and patience were remarkable. Staying in Kyoto helped me understand how lucky I am, having a group of people to sit with in the mornings here in Bremen.
I didn’t develop mighty skills suddenly, just because I was now sitting in Japan, meeting well-known people at famous places. Being proud is entirely misplaced here – genuine sincerity proved to be challenging and sobering enough for me. In the mornings and in the evenings, Jeff came by for zazen and one-on-one. Hard to put into words – an incredible help.
Each day I was sitting around 4 to 8 hours, depending on the daily schedule. Occasionally I got invited to dinner, or a walk around town with Jeff, then sitting together in the evenings again – healthy shifts in the daily routines. But don’t believe the temperatures you read on websites! Usually, it was colder inside the house than outside. Really.
We joined the evening-periods of the Rohatsu-Sesshin at Tofukuji at the beginning of December. Every evening we left the hermitage before sunset and sat from 5 PM to 11 PM. I recommend getting used to long sitting periods in advance. Practice at Tofukuji helped me to let go of some distorted pictures of what “real practice” is and where it might be found. Coming from the West, this was one thing that I wanted to experience for myself. At Tofukuji, I think it is good to behave with the appropriate gratitude and respect of a guest. I did not get that at first, because coming there felt quite normal and open. The monks are friendly and show you your seat in the zendo or Zen Hall, but for them it is the Sôdô or Monk’s Hall where they live.
Nobody expects you to become a zazen-soldier at the Rôkoan Hermitage, following the strictest schedule ever seen and not missing one second of it. Still, it would be a great loss to pay all that money, energy and time to get to the hermitage, then be preoccupied with making your stay as adventurous and pleasant as possible just because daily one-on-ones and all that sitting in the cold house turn out to be less “comfortable” than expected. Jeff likes to say: “Make good use of your time!” – but one should not rely solely on his words. I learned there is a huge difference between coming to rest and falling into lethargy.
My stay in Kyoto was not all joy and laughter. But I am very glad I went. In my opinion, breaks can be good and important – as long as they stay “breaks.” I tried not to indulge too much in them, though this was not always easy, I have to admit. Through Jeff, I made two friends – Florent, a guy from France living in Kyoto with his wife, and Takemasa-san, an elderly Zen nun studying with Jeff at his university. They brought more warmth into my stay and were a great support in various ways. During my last days, Wolfgang came too. Finally, I could have breakfast with a friend who spoke German
What do you take back from such a journey? In a way, all that I have written here comes from things I experienced. You probably heard and read such things a thousand times, but maybe it is worth hearing again: Go and find out yourself! Get in touch with Jeff and people who have been there (new advice: Japanese hot baths), buy a plane ticket, pack your stuff – and catch the right plane! The first one flew without me because I had the wrong day in mind. This mistake doubled my flight expenses and challenged my wallet, but the journey was worth every flight
Keep going with all sincerity, without tricks – then suddenly your journey is over and you’re flying back.
Gasshou, Raoul P., Germany (age 26)
My stay in the hermitage in May 2012
I was looking for an opportunity to further deepen my Zen practice. My five-week stay in the hermitage and, during this, the daily one-on-ones with Jeff were incredibly enriching.
My choice implied 5 weeks from home, and home meant a loving wife, 3 adorable young children, friends, family and, professionally, a small, self-owned newly started business. When I announced the plan, family and friends asked me:
Are the yearly retreats and your daily practice not sufficient for you? What extra benefits will this give you – and your loved ones? Is it really worth leaving behind your wife and 3 children for 5 weeks?
To be honest I did not have a clear answer and I did feel rather ashamed not having one. Ashamed because I was aware of the sacrifice to be made by my wife. She was to remain at home having just returned to her responsible job after her maternity leave, looking after a baby of 7 months old and two other young energetic boys. I felt rather selfish pursuing this exotic trip to Kyoto. On top of this it could jeopardize my small, painstakingly created business.
To deepen my practice, as I have said. But what does that mean specifically in plain ‘western’ terms? Does it bring happiness, generate more energy, joy or success in work and life? And for whom?
I couldn’t answer it, or maybe I didn’t dare to mention the answer. My intention could well be in line with other initiatives in my life, i.e. to deliberately achieve something. Wanting to achieve something is a well-known concept in my life; thoughts such as becoming a better person in order to become more compassionate as a husband and father or striving to be more successful in my work are all thoughts that are familiar to me. But this way of striving, I learned is not ‘zenistically’ correct. It is not very Zen to do something to get you into another position. ‘Striving for’ takes you away from ‘THIS’. It is a concept in my mind, it is not real. So that could not be the answer to the question:
I couldn’t answer the question to my own or others’ satisfaction before I set off to Kyoto. I decided to find out during my stay there, after all I would have plenty of time there to digest this ‘koan’. I decided to put all my energy into organizing things at the home front before I left, in order to minimize the burden of my absence. And after that I threw myself seriously into the practice.
The first days in the hermitage were ‘to get my feet on Japanese soil’ as Jeff put it. I settled in that cozy little Japanese style house and made my first hours of zazen. So far so good…
However, after the first few days sitting in that small room without daylight, days that started at 4 a.m. and that went on for about 10 hours, I started to feel the pain of missing my family and the pain in my long western legs. So, rather early in this journey, the same question came up:
Why am I doing this?
The second week I went to Tofukuji Monastery for a seven-day Rinzai Zen retreat. I had had some retreat experience so I thought I would get through this one as well. But when I sat there in that dark and chilly Zendo, my knees and other body parts soon started to hurt. Moreover in the rare breaks and short nights I was confronted with my lay Taiwanese roommate who, after several months, finally had someone who was less senior than he. This means under monastic rules that he is the ‘boss’ over me, and he gratefully used this opportunity…. He was 5 feet tall, approximately 1.5 feet shorter than I am, but nothing in his attitude towards me was in line with this physical difference…
Why, the h.. am I doing this?
But after a while my energy and willpower ebbed away and so did the power of this ‘Why’ question. With 3 hours’ sleep, little food, and 12 hours of zazen a day I had to use all my available energy to just get through every moment. There was simply none left to do more than just sit and breathe.
And this changed something, not in the situation but the way I dealt with it. So nothing changed really, but truly looking at it this way, a lot changed. And although the rest of my stay was still difficult at times, the way I opened up to it was literally ‘mind opening’ and therefore such an enriching experience. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity……although it might still be difficult to explain at home…
Anne-Johan W, NL (42)
In June 2012 I was very fortunate to be able to spend 3 weeks in Kyoto at the Hermitage. I had met Jeff at a retreat only several months before and had never thought to visit him in Kyoto so soon. But all of a sudden I got some weeks off from my job as a medical doctor and hospital administrator, so I decided to spend them at the Hermitage and I was happy that it worked out well. Jeff advised me to come several days before the start of the sesshin at the Tofukuji monastery, in order to acclimatize a bit so the change from home to the monastery would not be too big.
The week at Tofukuji monastery was an excellent experience. It took me 2 days to get used to the rhythm and the rules, especially concerning the meals. But the sitting immediately felt good in the beautiful zendo. Sutra chanting early in the morning, sitting together with the monks, going from darkness to daylight and to darkness again, the sounds of the city in the background, the smell of incense, feeling the wind through the open windows, the hitting of the keisaku, all together made the experience very intense. An especially wonderful thing about the rhythm is that after several days all becomes one, whether chanting, sitting, eating or walking – all is done with the same focus and this has a calming effect. New to me and very nice was the late-night sitting in the beautiful garden with the sounds of the wind in the trees, the frogs and the birds.
Back at the Hermitage it felt like a tremendous luxury. Fortunately there were three of us so we could sit together. Very important for me were the one-on-ones with Jeff in the morning and the evening. What I also liked was sitting together with the Saturday morning group. If only I had such a group at home!
Kyoto is the most beautiful city I know: the temples, the magnificent gardens, the nice people, the food and the many shops to buy presents. The nicest shop is the one on the corner between Jeff’s house and the Hermitage. In this shop they make the most beautiful wooden Buddhas. I could seldom resist walking in and staring at them, smelling the wood and seeing people carving. The weather in June was lovely, it allowed us to walk and bike around a lot, visit many gardens and the occasional museum. We even were able to assist Jeff in one of his university seminars.
For me, those 3 weeks were an incredible and very valuable experience. I was able to come to rest, sit with great intensity, and focus with Jeff in one-on-ones. Jeff and Fusako immediately made me feel at ease and at home. Their hospitality and love is truly remarkable. Thanks for this precious gift.
Bas G, NL (47)
I came to Kyoto for one month in 2012, arriving just before the June sesshin at Tôfukuji. After nine months of training in a Zen temple elsewhere, I was pretty exhausted and I was struggling with injuries. Even 25 minutes of sitting was a challenge. When I said yes for the June sesshin, I knew that I could make it. I did a couple of sesshins, even a Rôhatsu, in much worse condition. I survived them and learned that there is a huge difference between pain and suffering. It wasn’t a bad lesson, but this time I wanted to really meditate. However, I could do it only for the first few days. Then I was mainly struggling with the pain again. But this finally forced me to let go my expectations about proper meditating.
I don’t want to waste time trying to describe Japanese monastic training. But maybe the most appropriate words are: rigor, accuracy, and lack. Lack of sleep time, lack of protein-rich food, and lack of time for yourself. After coming home, many people asked me about my so called monastic experiences. I directed them to Géza Ottlik’s novel School at the Frontier. The story is about a military school in the 1920s. As a “by-product” the author seemed to get to the bottom of himself.
After the sesshin I enjoyed the good life and Jeff’s hospitability in his hermitage. And his wife’s excellent food. It seemed like Rabelais’ monastery of Theleme from his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel. Surprisingly enough, at the beginning, the sightseeing was a bigger challenge for my knees than the sesshin. And then, suddenly my body started to become stronger, day by day. First I was able to cross my legs, then to sit in half-lotus, and finally even in full-lotus again. I realized that my previous efforts weren’t wasted. My physical problems just made me prepared for the real practice. The conditions were almost perfect. It was an excellent combination of monastic and worldly life. We got the best of both. The one-on-ones were very valuable, free, and American. No exact teaching, no method, nothing to grasp, nobody to follow, just Jeff’s fatherly kindness. Furthermore, not too much Zen or Buddhism. Fortunately my practice was grounded enough to use this freedom well and to sit as much as I could. By the end of the stay I was eager to try my practice in real life. That is what I am gratefully doing now. And surprisingly it seems to work.
Balázs M, Hungary (age 34)
My Experience at the Hermitage
Practice in the hermitage with Jeff helped me to end a lot of misunderstandings and fantasies about Zen practice, and brought me back on track to a more honest and real practice. It was an invaluable experience – and I am looking forward to return to Japan again next year to get to the bottom of myself.
Leon C, Mexico (Age 42)
A recent visit
I could only stay two weeks, but it was just what was needed.
Very intense; time flew like an arrow.
I can just express my deep gratitude:
so grateful, that I could stay at the hermitage.
I am lost for words.
To stay in the midst of this beautiful, vivid, historic city of Kyoto.
To see and breathe in its Buddhist sights, to encounter the atmosphere of the Kyoto residents.
To enjoy their delicious food.
All these things were blessings on their own.
I could do zazen as much as I wanted.
And receive advice, inspiration, encouragement and admonishment when necessary
in one-on-one at least twice a day.
I was treated like a guest, a friend, a disciple, a son, a brother.
Unbelievable, overwhelming kindness.
Japanese people say that when one of their sons leaves the world and becomes a monk,
the whole family for many generations is saved.
What is the merit then for someone who opens up a hermitage and runs it every day?
After all, what do I want to say?
Well, I have already booked my flight for another stay next year.
Clemens M, Germany (age 55).
Kyoto: A Stay at the Hermitage 2010
I share here some of my experiences from Jeff’s Hermitage and the Rinzai training monastery of Tofukuji in Kyoto. I hope it will be of some use to those who consider a trip to Japan.
After many years of retreats in The Netherlands, Hungary and the United States, I felt it was time for me to experience Zen practice in Japan. I went to Kyoto with my Dharma-friend G and we stayed at the Hermitage for about a month (from the end of November until the end of December 2010). Jeff provided the perfect opportunity with his Hermitage and his introductions to join two sesshins at Tofukuji monastery. In between the sesshins at Tofukuji, we sat at the Hermitage and allowed ourselves to walk Kyoto streets and hills as regular tourists. It also gave me memorable moments, like night sitting in a graveyard on top of a half built grave overlooking the city lights of Kyoto.
The most valuable part of staying at the Hermitage was the opportunity to have daily one-on-one with Jeff in the mornings and evenings. These frequent exchanges, however short they might be, proved to be pivotal in my Zen training. To continually put myself in front of this Zen-wall was at times deeply frustrating, but equally deeply rewarding. I suddenly realized I had entered Koan training – but in such a natural and informal way that I only became aware of it when I woke up one morning with this nagging question in my head, heart and body. There was no way I could get rid of the damn thing. It made me laugh at myself – so this is what it means when a Koan sticks to you and you get stuck on it. This is definitely not an academic, intellectual word game. And from experience I can now testify – it works!
Although sitting is basically the same any place in the world, the atmosphere of a Rinzai training monastery is incomparable to anything I’ve experienced and as I found, nothing can really prepare you for it. The thunderous sound of fierce hitting with the keisaku, the confusing speed of the dinner rituals, the intense cold in winter, the stone hard and equally cold tatami-mats in the Hondô (hall for lectures and sutra recitations), these things can be told, but are only understood when experienced by oneself. Zen itself it is a matter of practice. Only then will you know how your body and mind react to these conditions.
To be able to take part in a sesshin with the monks and share a bit of their life has made a difference. The intensity and rigor of such meditation discipline definitely affected my meditation practice, as well as my perspective on it. It was also a clash of cultural differences, a confrontation of conceptual views, and ultimately a confrontation with myself. Personally, the experience contributed to a fundamental change from a floundering practice into a daily discipline from within. It brought me a thorough awareness of what Zen practice is about and what it means to me. I learned more in these intense weeks in Kyoto than in many years of European retreats.
All in all, even after dropping out of the Rôhatsu sesshin after five days with symptoms of hypothermia, I can only say that it has been worth the travel, trouble and effort. I recently returned to the Hermitage for a weeklong retreat – sitting in the morning at the Hermitage and joining the monks at Tofukuji for the evening sitting periods. I can now recommend the Spring temperatures over the ones in December, if even just to lower at least one barrier for yourself.
The experiences in Kyoto also taught me that our meditation efforts in the West are in no way ‘inferior’ to the Japanese tradition. When asked about Zen practice in the West, the present master, Harada Roshi at Tofukuji said: “What matters is if it’s done with heart.”
I wish you all lots of ‘heart’ and a wonderful stay at the Hermitage. (By the way, if you intend to take part in a Winter sesshin, don’t forget to bring heat-pads to wear under seven layers of thermal clothes )
Stefan v W, NL (age 46)
A Day at Rôko-an
03:00 – Wake-up. Curse myself for a moment. Stretch my arms and legs. Jump-up. Get the lights. Drink a glass of milk with a bit of honey. Splash my face with cold water.
03:05 – Zazen! In the mornings, the whole city slumbers. The sound of the traffic is nothing but a ghostly trickle. Sometimes, I hear the clack-clack-clack of heels against the pavement, but it usually only punctuates the prevailing silence and serenity of pre-dawn Kyoto. Ah, how wondrous just to sit and be!
06:30 – Restless. The pale blue glow of dawn spills in through the back door. The rice paper windows begin to faintly glow. A steady stream of taxis and bikes zip by. I long for sky above and the hues of dawn cast upon the scattered clouds. Make a cup of black tea with a shot of milk. Fill a water bottle. Pack my yoga mat and backpack.
06:40 – Stroll through Kyoto. Stop at a bright orange temple. Bow in gasshou to a 12-foot, 12-headed Kannon statue– “May I and all beings awaken!” Try to keep my attention inward – but what a beautiful girl, and those azaleas are such a vivid pink, as if the bush was aflame with flowers. Walk through Kennin-ji, the first Zen temple in Kyoto, amost next door. My heart settles amidst velvet-green moss, ancient pines, and tea bushes. Stop at a monument to Dôgen. Gasshou. From there, I head west to the river.
07:10 – Sitting beside the Kamo River beneath a willow. An old Japanese man places a can of cafe au lait at my feet and offers to buy me breakfast. I decline. We talk briefly before he gasshous and reverently leaves. I close my eyes and all that remains is the sound of a river, of salary men and joggers, and of bikes and cars flowing by.
09:30 – Walk back to Rôko-an, the hermitage. An old Japanese woman hunched over her cane greets me with a warm smile and “Ohayô Gozaimasu.”
09:50 – Light incense. Take a swig of water and a quick piss. Brush my teeth. Sweep the genkan entrance and the street outside. Pick the weeds out from the cracks.
10:00 – Zazen. Just the three of us – Alex, Jeff, and I, sit still in a windowless room. The walls and doors sometimes rattle as traffic rushes by. “Don’t those jerks know I’m meditating!?” We go upstairs for one-on-one. Jeff”s presence and guidance keeps me sharp and focused.
11:00 – Cook lunch. Alex and I chat while we dance in the kitchen – cutting cabbage, frying eggs, burning toast. We sit for a moment at the table and eat, sometimes talking, sometimes not.
12:00 – A belly full of food, I go for a stroll through Kyoto. Beautiful traditional houses with a rustic charm and modern, concrete monstrosities line the street. A beautiful Juniper bonsai catches my eye.
13:00 – Zazen back at Rôko-an. I sit with only the rattling doors and murmur of traffic for company. Soon, even that seems to fade.
16:00 – Restless. Pour myself a glass of milk. Lay down and admire the wood grain in the panels on the ceiling.
16:15 – Zazen. The traffic continues, joined by the intermittent shouts and laughs of children.
18:45 – Light incense. Swig down some oolong tea cooled in the fridge. Splash my face with water.
19:00 – Zazen. As soon as I hear that door slide open, I become taut and focused. I remember why I am here. Whatever’s said upstairs in the one-on-one room, there is one enduring message: don’t waste your time give yourself completely to whatever you’re doing.
20:00 – Alex and I chat for a bit after zazen. Our conversations range from the beauty of the breath, the history and richness of the Zen tradition, working with doubt, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. After, I pack my bag and yoga mat.
20:10 – To the dead! I stroll down the main street, headlights and backlights streaming by. Young Japanese kids weave through pedestrians on their bikes. As I approach the cemetery, the noises of the city quiet to a ghostly echo. The only living thing that remains here are the stray cats which sometimes dart beneath the streetlights or vanish in the cracks between houses. Even the crows have gone to sleep.
20:30 – Yaza on a granite plateau overlooking the city. The gravestone-obelisks stagger beneath the Kyoto skyline, the mountains behind lost in a dark haze. The graves mock the city which I sit before, a reminder that even the skyscrapers and towering apartment complexes will someday come crumbling down.
22:00 – Tired, I drag myself back to Roko-an.
22:15 – Drink some water. Rub my eyes and yawn. Brush my teeth. Roll out my futon. Ah, sleep!
Brendan S, USA (age 21)
Value of the Hermitage
In late April, 2009, at the age of 39, I arrived in Kyoto for a 3-month zazen retreat at the hermitage. There were a lot of events that led up to this, but there were a few in particular that gave me the feeling that I needed to do it. I had given up on a lucrative career in finance in order to pursue a more fulfilling career teaching. Though this was a step in the right direction, something still wasn’t right. I was still searching. About three years before coming to Kyoto I had taken up zazen in the hopes that somehow this practice would help give some sense to a world and/or life that didn’t seem to have any. Though I was immediately grateful to have discovered zazen and the Rinzai tradition, “practice” began as just a part of my life.
Slowly over the following year it became clear that practice needed to become my whole life, and that I needed to start making decisions that would allow this to happen. I had read enough on the importance of cultivating “Great Doubt” to know that this was not happening in my practice. I was still on a career path (teaching) that I pursued largely because I found it fulfilling. Instead of focusing all the energies of this “hunger for fulfillment” on my koan in zazen, I continued to seek fulfillment in my career, and other areas of my life as well, zazen being only one of these. So a little over a year before arriving in Kyoto, I quit teaching, and chose a career (waiting tables) that had little or no chance of catering to my sense of purpose. Though I had often considered such work “dead end” jobs, the lack of ambition and drive this work required was perfect for zazen. Practice was naturally becoming more focused and continuous. Great Doubt was growing.
But why come to Kyoto? I was pretty confident that I knew what needed to be done and that I didn’t need a teacher to do it, but I contacted Jeff (whom I had met once during his sabbatical) by email and asked him what he thought about my idea of practicing alone for a couple of years in a hermitage of my choosing. In his own words Jeff told me that even if it turns out that no guidance is needed in my case, it can’t hurt to have someone around to help keep the practice focused and to point out blind spots in case there are any. I agreed. A year or so later I was in Kyoto practicing at the hermitage.
Was the guidance necessary? I think it would be insulting to call the guidance I received “necessary.” I went to Kyoto because I thought it might be necessary, but I left wondering what I had done to receive such a gift. The retreat environment of the hermitage (including sesshin at Tofukuji) provided the support I was hoping for, but I never could have expected the guidance I received in one-on-one. The harder I pushed, the more helpful Jeff proved. It’s not that I had some great kenshô experience or something like that, because I didn’t. But I could see what genuine zazen was a lot more clearly when I left than when I had arrived. I don’t see how I could have discerned the delicate subtleties and nuances of practice without Jeff’s help. In a very positive sense the entire experience was very humbling. “How the hell did this happen?” I thought. The gratitude I felt during this time has only grown since. It’s obvious that you don’t find this kind of lineage and guidance. It finds you.
If you are at the point in your life where you are trying to figure out how to give yourself more fully to your practice, it “can’t hurt” to spend some time at the hermitage. All the best.
Jack V, USA (age 39)
Brief thoughts on your stay at the hermitage
The time you are here should have one real focus, one true intention. That is breaking through, that is taking that steady, calm eye and honing it in and looking, digging and gazing into the perplexity of your utterly simple soul.
Sit, walk, bathe, eat and drink and take a dump on that warm toilet, but always without a break; keep that eye in penetrating gaze. Do not give it up for thoughts about pain or boredom or food or comfort. Don’t waste time beating yourself up because you dropped your practice and don’t waste time wallowing in these distractions. Return to your practice and eat, drink, and get some exercise, but do not let your practice go.
Don’t exchange it for the most glorious idea or insight or vision; it is not a fair trade and you will squander your time.
Don’t waste time in reflection or conversation or in fantasy or deprecation. Don’t exchange your practice for any of these.
Don’t give up your practice even for the sweet release of the mind in darkness, whether it’s laying down at night or sitting upright on your cushions. When you have your attention about you, put it to your practice.
The point of this hermitage is single pointed. Do zazen, do kinhin (walking zen), do one-on-one, eat well – and in all you do, keep your practice. You will have plenty of time to reflect later. If you are here at the hermitage you have made a sacrifice to focus on this one thing, this singular practice; continue that sacrifice. This is not the time to integrate your life and your practice; you will learn that after your time here. This is the time to penetrate beyond the usual boundaries of Self. Your entire life will continue in this practice, this is your time to establish some of the deepest foundations and break down some of the most hidden fortresses.
Don’t give my advice another thought.
Fr Justin L, USA (age 30)
A Month at the Hermitage
In 2011 I spent almost the whole month of December at the Hermitage in Kyoto. The first thing I noticed: it is a rather small place. Japanese people are used to living in houses like this, but we were three big foreign guys, and we needed to carefully use whatever space was available. Futons needed to be stowed away every morning simply because otherwise we would not have enough space to do zazen. Even getting rid of our suitcases proved quite a challenge. There is a closet upstairs, but it is best not to bring more than you really need.
S (my Dutch Dharma buddy) and I had come to do some serious sitting: it was the time of the Rohatsu sesshin at Tofukuji and we joined them. I decided, because of an injury, to just go in for the evening sits from 5-11PM, while S stayed at Tofukuji. Coming to Japan allowed me to sit in an environment (be it the Hermitage or Tofukiji) that was dedicated to sitting. Plus at the Hermitage there was Jeff coming in twice a day for one-on-one. That alone was worth every Euro we spent (including all we spent on souvenirs). I set up a zazen schedule (more or less the Tofukuji sesshin schedule) to sit by myself and somehow managed to follow it for almost the whole month. Over time I developed a set routine: espresso, breakfast, groceries, checking emails at the Gojo Café, cooking etc.
Not to be too holy: there was time off for sightseeing, souvenir shopping and dinners out also. We sat hard, but had plenty of good times too. What I especially remember was that I slowly got ‘sucked’ into the practice. I am used to sitting daily and to doing a few 4-5 day retreats per year, but actually sitting a consistent schedule for 25 days (including the one-on-ones) proved a very powerful way to deepen my practice and to become ‘walled in’ by it gradually. This evolved quite naturally and whenever we sat a lighter schedule or had a day of sightseeing, it didn‘t really break the hold the practice had on me.
Going to Tofukuji the first time was impressive. The whole place is geared to just one thing: Zen practice. Everything and everybody is a cog in that clockwork and you just have to make sure you do what is required at the right time. Initially it can be rather daunting. There is an intensity that starts right at the front gate and it is wonderfully inspiring and encouraging. Going there on my own or with Jeff and Alex meant a 30 minute walk south – a natural way of preparing for it.
Another thing I noticed: most Japanese do not speak English well. It is difficult to strike up even a casual conversation. Walking along the Kyoto city streets never made me feel like I was a ‘tourist’ though. The Japanese people are very polite: I’m sure I violated plenty of rules but I was never confronted about it – except of course at Tofukuji. Remember to walk quietly while there!
The Hermitage proved to be an excellent place to practice: the three of us always managed to sit together at least some periods every day and Jeff was available every day at least twice for one-on-ones. During sesshin we did three: one in the morning, one before leaving for Tofukuji around 4:30PM, and one after we got back at around 11:30PM. This too added to the intensity of my stay: there was no escaping or lagging. The mere fact that every single day – without exception – there was one-on-one kept me focused on the practice almost non-stop. Maintaining that for about a month (with all the ups-and-downs that you will inevitably experience in a month of intense sitting) was a unique and truly invaluable process, unlike any retreat or 1 month stays in a meditation centre in India I had done before.
‘Vaut le voyage’ as they say about three-star Michelin restaurants: ‘Worth the journey’. Trust me, that is an understatement here. Gasshou.
Guus v. O, NL (age 52)
I was fortunate to stay twice at the Hermitage: a few weeks during the spring of 2003, and two-months in the summer of 2010 as part of a 4½ month Zen pilgrimage. These were two of the most important experiences of my life, extraordinarily helpful for my Zen practice.
I have been a serious layperson for many years. With family and work responsibilities, I have maintained a daily zazen practice, belonged to sanghas and participated in retreats when I was able. However it was during my stays at the Hermitage that I was able to experience a true taste of contemplative life.
Living in the Hermitage provides the opportunity to do sustained practice and daily one-on-one with Jeff, as well as the experience of living harmoniously with others in a monastic-like yet real-life environment. Sustained zazen and moment-to-moment mindfulness, combined with cooking, cleaning, and other chores done mostly in silence, brings the practice to natural fruition. Exploring Kyoto was also a delightful and invaluable part of the experience.
Participating in weeklong sesshins at Tofukuji is also a precious opportunity. Sitting in deep silence with the monks and other lay practitioners gives one the chance to devote oneself to practice in an atmosphere of supportive rigor.
Now back in Maryland, I continue daily zazen, sit with others in my apartment, belong to a Zen group in Washington DC, and go for monthly and longer retreats when I am able. My Zen practice is stronger than ever and continues in its intensity. I encourage you to give yourself fully to your Zen practice while at the Hermitage!
Tina S, USA (age 64)