The Value of the Hermitage
Over the last 8 years I stayed at the hermitage once every two years, five separate visits, each lasting anywhere from a month to 3 months. The main value the hermitage provides, I thought initially, lies in providing a sesshin type of environment combined with daily one on one with Jeff. But later I came to appreciate something else, equally valuable: the time spent with Jeff outside of the hermitage, in the city of Kyoto.
My first visit in 2009 revolved completely around sitting with no interest at all in “seeing the sites” (as I thought of it then) with Jeff. So I came for 3 months, sat 12 hours a day, attended 2 sesshin at Tofukuji, and did one on one with Jeff at least twice daily. As mentioned in the first and only hermitage account I wrote 8 years ago, the one on ones with Jeff were beneficial in ways that seemed miraculous at the time. Even to this day I feel very fortunate that Jeff was there at the beginning, to help provide a living sense of what it means to “completely focus all one’s energy” in zazen. I doubt I could have come to that on my own. He also tried to get me out for lunch and for other stuff I did not care about, and out of politeness I would go. We had a great conversation once at a pizza place, but apart from that I found leaving the hermitage annoying and a waste of what I felt was very little precious time.
The next two years of my life went on with the same intensity of focus I had learned at the hermitage during that first visit. With such strong advice in the beginning, it was easy to integrate that focus into my life at home, which included taking full advantage of Jeff’s US retreats. Fairly soon, for a variety of reasons, the one on one’s were not offering the challenges and inspiration they did initially, even though I was definitely looking for them. Since I could not find what I was looking for in one on one, I began to look more carefully at Jeff’s life to see if the challenges were offered there without his intention, in a manner that was more natural for me to appreciate. It was all there once I began to look. The shortcomings were there too, but Jeff’s whole life in Kyoto and in the time we had spent together in the US outside of retreat was filled with very subtle unintended displays of selflessness that I found very inspiring, and unquestionably lacking in my own life. Is something holding me back, even though I don’t feel held back or lacking in freedom? Is rousing and focusing doubt crucial at this point in a way I am failing to appreciate? This has become for me the “other” value of the hermitage, going well beyond hours of zazen and one on one interviews. In the end, they all work together somehow as part of a complete practice.
So in addition to offering a sesshin type of practice environment, living at the hermitage offers the opportunity for “exchanges” with Jeff to arise more naturally and organically than during retreat and formal one on one interviews, and this may provide additional occasions to see what’s what. The retreats and one on one have their own value too, much like sesshin at Tofukuji. But if you can make the time, go to Kyoto and take advantage of both. (2017)
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. (2009)
Jack V, USA (age 39)
Six-Week Stay at the Hermitage after Finishing my College Studies in Munich in 2016
From the beginning of November until the middle of December I spent 6 weeks at the Hermitage. I was very warmly welcomed and had the great fortune to meet Christian and Leon upon my arrival. So I felt at home very quickly, though I needed a few days to adapt to the noise of the busy street around the corner and my jet lag.
Reflecting back, I had the time of my life in Kyōto. The warmth and encouragement I received on my ways beyond belief. Besides the intense sittings, I also had the chance to soak myself in the beauty of the city and the Japanese culture. I found the perfect place where practice and daily life walk hand in hand. With Jeff’s marvelous and humbling embodiment of that always close by. And, to top it off, the presence of his lovely wife Fusako.
After the first few days at the Hermitage I had the chance to do a few days of sesshin at Tōfukuji Monastery, which left a great impact on me. The centuries-old surrounding with its subtle smell of sweat and pain of countless seekers before me penetrated deep into my bones. As the icing on the cake, I had the chance to meet there with the abbot as well as Jeff.
The second chapter at Tōfukuji opened up for me in the Rohatsu retreat. Sleeping only 2 hours and devoting all of myself to the practice was very precious. When you’re ready for that, it’s truly something you need to see with your own eyes.
The Hermitage is equipped with everything you need. Supermarkets, shopping center and other cute Japanese shops are nearby. Within five minutes there is a wonderful fruit and veggie store with epic bananas, avocados and kaki (persimmons). I recommend it. 🙂 During Christian’s stay we would often cook all kinds of miso soup and rice together for lunch, which was a great joy for me.
Guided by Jeff I had the pleasure to experience Japanese hot springs, wonderful walks in the nearby hills, traditional food and so much more. Enjoying Fusako’s Japanese cuisine added another precious flavor to the whole experience.
From December Pablo from Spain came to the Hermitage so I even had a sitting buddy after Rohatsu. Though there was amazing company, the focus was mostly on of my own practice. Exposing myself over and over again, stepping beyond myself, peeling off old skin, unveiling layer after layer. Excruciating pain and sadness. Fear. Ugliness. Uncertainty. Doubt. Stuckness. Unworthiness. Freezing from the cold outside.
So is the Hermitage a place where all your wishes come true? Certainly not. Yet if you open up to where you are at any given moment, you’ll be perfectly met there. That at least was my experience. Every time I think of it, I am overwhelmed with immense gratitude for how I was met and treated by Jeff.
I send all my love to the friends I met at the Hermitage who all profoundly shaped my life: Christian, Leon, Brian, Pablo, Vera, Trevor and David.
Ludwig, München Germany (age 24)
It’s early February, a Sunday morning in San Diego, looking back at a one-month stay in Kyoto last November. A week with my family sightseeing, then I spent three weeks in the Hermitage. Shreds of memories: walking through the food market, tasting pickled vegetables and every few meters a different scent; turning around a street corner with Jeff on the bicycle in Kyoto traffic; wolfing down miso soup, cooked with buddies in the Hermitage: finally warm food; sitting in the monastery, it’s cold, my back aches, but up to the navel it’s like sitting in warm water; Jeff’s wife Fusako-san roasting chicken; an early afternoon lunch with Jeff in a pub called Muenchen; the flurry of tourists in Geisha costumes taking selfies; flaming red mimosa trees; a rainbow over northern Kyoto, seen from the bridge over the river.
A moment of peace waiting for the train to the airport in Kyoto station: the sky over the eastern hills lighting up, the neon lights fading away.
Taking care and being taken care of, by Jeff, Fusako-san, the buddies sitting with you in the Hermitage, the monks in Tofukuji, the practice itself. Dark hours, bright hours, and sitting with pain. A string of dumb-struck no-answer one-on-ones: “now you can sit.” That “now you can sit,” like a thief that robs you at night. And only in daylight, or in this case at home, you realize the impact. Jeff staying in touch and not letting go; shreds of memories, like a broken bowl, with nothing spilled. Appreciation that took a while.
Christian W, (age 50), German living in the Netherlands
Two weeks at the Hermitage, Summer 2016
Even if one is living in a Buddhist temple in a country with a deep Buddhist tradition, it is a valuable opportunity and a challenge to practice at the Hermitage in Kyoto. Actually, that “even” should be replaced with an “especially”! I say this as a Hungarian who has now lived several years as a Son (Zen) monk in South Korea.
This is because staying at the hermitage can be much like a solo retreat – the most advanced and valued way of practice in many meditation traditions. An opportunity to practice at a place like that, for example in a country like South Korea, is not easy at all. Besides, these places may not have experienced teachers available for guidance when needed.
The doors of such meditation places are often locked from the outside, so one can only leave when the retreat period is over. Food intake is restricted with usually only one meal a day. There are also three smaller rules that are quite widely known and applied: Not lying down (apart from sleeping at night), no speaking, and no leaning (i.e. not leaning against anything whenever sitting or standing).
I have learned about these rules while staying in South Korea, and thought to apply some of them during my stay in the Hermitage, because I was not sure how I could maintain discipline and focus when I will be by myself.
This was not the first time I practiced at the Hermitage, and I had good memories of the closest public phone, the nearby place to check email, and colorful images and unique scents from the convenient stores down the street. This time I thought that in order to cut all that out, I will try to bring enough food for two weeks, eating one meal a day. I had the same kind of food and the same portions for every day, so my expectations were met each mealtime. Also, I decided to not go out of the hermitage unless Jeff suggested it, or in order to maintain the harmony with other people who may be staying there.
I did not decide to do this because I wanted to make the practice more difficult. On the contrary, I thought it would be easier if I will only have to focus on the practice. It worked quite well not going out of the Hermitage for the first seven days at all.
This was also an occasion when I could make good use of very basic Japanese language skills, so I was glad to have learned a few useful words, as suggested by Jeff prior to the trip.
Staying at the Hermitage is not simply a solo retreat, however. Jeff is there to guide and to support in one-on-one, not only once but twice a day. This is precious indeed. There may also be other practitioners staying part of the time in the Hermitage. Hearing about the experiences of such people has also been a great support and inspiration for me. I am glad such exchanges were possible. With Vera, Jan, and Leon, the ones who came to sit the most frequently during those two weeks, we quickly became Dharma buddies. Sitting together with them was also a great help for me.
Practice places exist because of the effort of many people. I wish many more people continue to come to the Hermitage, and make their stay an opportunity to add their own efforts to the ongoing practice there. I am grateful for Jeff and Fusako whose dedication makes the Hermitage an easily accessible, friendly yet serious practice environment.
Chang Gyong (Krisztian Arpad Kovacs) South Korea/Hungary (age 39)
Cold body, warm heart – three weeks in Kyoto, December 2016
I arrived in Kyoto just in time to go to Tofukuji for the last three days of the rohatsu o-sesshin (that means “the mother of all retreats”, roughly). There I found Ludwig, a great German kid who had been in Kyoto for over a month by the time I got there, and who would become my zazen “partner in crime” for the first half of my stay. Although I just dipped my feet in monastic life, it was enough for me to realize that’s not my path: all my romantic ideas swept away like old maple leaves. I realized I could bear the pain, the cold, the sleep deprivation… but that all of that wouldn’t make me a better, happier person.
Back from Tofukuji, Ludwig and I would alternate regular zazen sessions at the hermitage with some sightseeing in and around Kyoto with our reliable tour guide Mr. Jeff Shore. After Ludwig left, I started my own 7-day retreat at the hermitage. Following my own rhythm, I meditated for around 13 hours every day, doing long kinhin sessions as well as regular zazen, taking short pauses for lunch, and after sitting in the evenings with the monks at Tofukuji, sleeping a good 7 hours at night. Instead of trudging along, fighting against my body, the practice became naturally solid, and I still feel I could have gone on like that for months. No pain, no lack of sleep. Well, there was cold, but it wasn’t that bad. Then it ended and I had to come back to Spain, where Christmas awaited me.
I learned much during my stay in Kyoto, much more than what I can write here — or anywhere else, for that matter. But I can’t finish this report without expressing my infinite gratitude to Jeff and Fusako: their constant support, help, warmth and hospitality were overwhelming. I still can’t fully believe how well they treated me, how lucky I am. Truly, this is a marvelous life.
Pablo C. Spain (age 28)
Hermitage Report – Kyoto, October 18, 2016
There were moments when everything fell down, and what was right there became clear. There was a moment where I found myself sitting in between Jeff and our friend Hoi and I was sure that I was in between two cast iron skillets; two bronze statues. There, unveiled, was an uncompromising discipline; a brick-wall resolve to dismantle. That glimpse became for me a vow to aspire to. That vow allowed me to break through the pain.
Jeff’s presence in zazen was like sitting across from a bottomless lake: one so deep, so calmed, and so clear that it was impossible to see even a sliver beyond its glacier-blue circular surface. Like a solid, immovable block of ice: not because it seemed frozen, but because it was so permeable that it couldn’t be agitated. It was that kind of living stillness, that kind of touching-but-not-touching, that echoed what I found in my own glimpses of “before-thought.”
The opportunity to practice at the hermitage in the heart of Kyoto broadened the breadth of insight. My visit coincided with the formal induction of the new abbot at Tofukuji, where Jeff himself practiced for decades and received guidance. Witnessing the ceremonial procession of the monks entering the temple to honor this succession granted me an even deeper understanding of the profound way this teaching has been passed down, from mind to mind, since the infinite beginning. Perhaps I’ve begun to see that its purity has been preserved precisely because of the inability to utter it, which exists alongside the overwhelming compulsion to share it. Perhaps I’ve begun to accept that my own need to express it needn’t be perfect; that I need only to point at it, to nudge it in a certain direction, and then let it go.
I know that I have just received the most incredible gift. I am steadfast in continuing to nourish it through constant practice so that I may share this gift with others, as Jeff has done for me. This direct experience is the only means that could have possibly allowed me to understand the process that Jeff and countless others have undertaken: shedding oneself for the sake of everyone else. It amazes me to realize that I was likely not even in the world yet when Jeff began this process and passed through the most difficult part, but that, somehow, he had me in mind.
The words that Jeff spoke to me during one-on-one have resounded through me at the darkest moments, and at the most joyful as well. In twelve days he gave me access to a lifetime’s worth of wisdom. The most amazing part of this realization is attempting to grasp that what I’ve glimpsed is only a drop in the ocean.
Jeff’s generosity, openness, trust and compassion are beyond what I can comprehend. His raw direction has an incredible fatherly kindness to it that pierced straight into my heart and cracked it open: yellow light in every direction. I am forever grateful, and I am freed in knowing that I only need to live as a full celebration of this love in order to be a sincere expression of that gratitude.
Gasshou, Andrea O, USA (age 30)
I visited Jeff Shore in Kyoto two years ago in October for one month, including 3 weeks at the hermitage, then one week in Tofukuji for a monastic sesshin, and after that some days again in the hermitage. I was there together with Raoul, a Zen friend who came with me from Bremen, and Sergio from Mexico.
The daily schedule was nine periods of zazen: 50 minutes each with breaks of 10 minutes, starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m. Every morning and evening Jeff joined so that we could have one-on-one twice a day! At other times we were free to shop, cook, take walks, etc.
I was happy to have a very good team with Raoul and Sergio – we did nearly everything together and supported each other very well. Also, Jeff showed us many interesting places in the city and surroundings. His home is around the corner from the hermitage so he visited us often. Also he and his wife Fusako invited us to their home on occasion. It was very pleasant. We went also to Hanazono University, where Jeff is professor, to give a short talk for his Japanese students about our respective lives, professions, and cultures.
Before we went to the Tôfukuji monastery for seven days sesshin, Jeff gave us the opportunity to sit there a few evenings with the monks. That was possible because he has known the abbot for a long time. It was a great help to encourage and prepare us for the sesshin. Afterwards we could reflect on our monastic experience and recover from it in the hermitage before traveling home. That was very helpful as well.
If you are ready to deepen your Zen practice while staying in the real world, the hermitage is the right place. For me the sitting was very hard and painful. Also, I didn’t sleep well because I was sensitive to the street noise. But the daily one-on-ones and the support of Raoul and Sergio helped me to get through it all.
Deep concentration in a small group – without giving up my own responsibility – was a new experience for me. Before that, I knew only retreats where I give up all responsibility to the jiki and the retreat schedule. Thus I struggled with problems and couldn’t find the time to sit really concentrated. Here there was strong form yet free decision, concentration on my own yet going out into the (in this case, Japanese!) world, being challenged to the extreme yet constantly supported. I cried nearly every day, yet I was really glad: life seemed so hard and so easy at the same time. I’m very glad and thankful to have had this opportunity! Thank you, Jeff.
gassho Eva P, Bremen, Germany (age 55)
Second retreat at the Hermitage in Kyoto (Autumn 2014)
Before my second visit to Kyoto, my girlfriend gave me a letter, saying: “Sit until your bones make noise. I will be with you.” There was a power in her trusting support that helped carry me through.
Together with Eva, my crazy elder sitting sister from Bremen, we joined Sergio, who had come to Kyoto all the way from Mexico. We immediately called ourselves ”the gang” and have done so ever since, remaining close Dharma friends. We sat 8–9 hours together each day, for almost four weeks. Other people joined our sitting gang occasionally.
I felt much more at home and comfortable than during my first visit. After all, we have what we need during our stay. You don’t need to become Japanese. But having close friends around was truly helpful to sit all those hours each day.
Because I was really comfortable this time, my sitting was profoundly alive and naturally deepened. And we always had fresh fruits and vegetables in the house, which I found really uplifting. There is nothing like sharing a sweet Kaki-persimmon after you have sat together the whole day and all knees feel the same 😉 You do not need to rot and starve at the Hermitage. We shared food, joys and worries together. We were seriously committed to zazen, but we also had so many wonderful moments together with Jeff and others, I won’t even try to mention them.
Being in Kyoto, I did not see magic tricks – not sitting in the hermitage, nor at the monastery, nor cycling through the city, nor having dinner together. I was helped in ordinary ways, not with dramatic “zenistic-acts.” No tips or tools exclusively available for paying visitors.
I am deeply grateful for the relation that has grown between Jeff and me over the last years. I really don’t know if I would still be practicing without his friendship and guidance. And yet, the hermitage is not there for us to become close to Jeff or become his disciples. Rather, we are there to be independent people, truly living and looking out of own eyes. Jeff is there for us in every way possible; but he is also careful not to get in our way.
During my first visit to Kyoto, I felt pretty lost. It was like a wonderful present I had received, but could not yet unwrap or use. Everything was a big worry: ”Is this true or not? What is it?” I could barely open my mouth. This time, it was priceless for me to see and taste: I came to make it clear for myself, and now I know that I have all that I need. This was just the liberating confirmation I needed. I have all that I need, and the way is clear.
Gasshou, Raoul P., Bremen, Germany (age 29)
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 😉 ).
Gasshou, Stefan v W, NL (age 46)
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. (2012)
I had the oportunity to practice and stay a second time at the hermitage. This time for over a month, plus a weeklong sesshin in the Tofukuji training monastery. There were four of us laypeople living together at the hermitage, so I could share the practice with serious and committed practitioners from different parts of the world. Practice at the hermitage was intense and steady, but in a different format from the monastery, because it is squarely grounded in our regular, daily lives (going to the supermarket, to a coffee shop when there’s time, etc.) Yet you are solidly sitting for about 8 hours a day. The most important thing is one-on-one twice every day with Jeff; this keeps you on track all the time, so you can steadily dig deeper into your practice. At the end we did the Tofukuji sesshin, which was very valuable and intense. It helped me to go deeper into what I was working on with Jeff. One day during the monastery sesshin, before the evening sittings, rain was pouring down all around us; I will never forget the one-on-one with Jeff then. At that moment I realized: “This is real practice!” The other day somebody ask me what I learned, what remains from the experience? My answer: “Complete trust in the practice.” (2013)
For me, staying at the hermitage is real practice. I have stayed there now five times over the last several years, from a few weeks to a full month each time. The intensity of having extended sitting periods with invaluable one-on-one sessions twice a day with Jeff, plus immersion in Japanese culture, is incomparable with anything I experienced before. All of it helping to propel in many ways the existential need for constant practice, and making it impossible to depart from the practice. (2016)
Leon C, Mexico (age 42)
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)
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)
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.
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. (age 28).
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 (age 47)
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.
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.
Sozui S, Germany (age 47)
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)
Hermitage Account 2014
I spent a brief 10 days at the Rokoan hermitage in April/May 2014. Having practiced for many years in another Zen tradition in Australia, I had been listening to and reading Jeff’s talks for about 5 years and I found they spoke to me in a way that grew over time, so I decided to make the journey and meet Jeff. Jeff was quite welcoming, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, despite never having met me. Staying at Rokoan proved to be an important step in my practice because I found when I arrived that something within me was unresolved and Jeff skilfully asked me a series of simple but incisive questions that focused me on the underlying issue. Morning and evening interviews with Jeff and a schedule of zazen that included evening sits at Tofukuji kept this focus up and I came away more settled than when I had arrived. I was lucky to have a strong sitting partner staying with me at the time (Karin from Belgium), which helped me to keep my own practice strong. Jeff kindly made himself available for morning and evening one-on-one interviews and, along with Fusako, for sightseeing and dinners out and at home. Jeff’s depth of knowledge of Zen and his clarity, along with his skill as a teacher, were enormously helpful to me. I wholeheartedly recommend a stay at Rokoan to any serious Zen practitioner of whatever tradition. Jeff’s clear eye and his capacity to make use of it in helping others (in this case me) is something I will always treasure and hope to experience again sometime soon.
Jeff W (age 60), Australia