Eiheiji Temple & Zen Master Dogen

Posted on October 14, 2018 by Toothpicker There have been 0 comments

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A large 13th century temple complex located in rural Fukai is considered to be an important pilgrimage site by most Soto Zen practitioners (including Steve Jobs), and this temple is Eiheiji, founded by Master Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) in 1244.

I had been interested in Buddhism since I was in my early 20s, but I only started to practice properly in 2008. It was not plain sailing for me as I had to 'shop around' to find a non-dogmatic practice that suited me. I knew little about Master Dogen until I met my Zen teacher over more than four years ago. Since then, I have been practicing zazen regularly, and studying the writings of Dogen from his Shobogenzo (Treasury of the True Dharma Eye). And to my surprise, Dogen's writings from over 800 years ago are still pertinent today. However, Dogen advocated that the core of the practice is not about the writings, but the practice of zazen or Shikantaza (just sitting).

 

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I had wanted to visit Eiheiji for some time, but due to its rural location, I did not make the journey until this long trip. Although the temple offers a sanro programme allowing foreign visitors to stay overnight, the stay has to be accompanied by an English-speaking guide and a written letter from your zen teacher (they got rid of this requirement recently). I was slightly put off by these requirements as I dislike bureaucracy, hence I opted for a day visit instead of staying overnight.

What struck me when I got off the bus at Eiheiji was the fact that I had to walk past numerous souvenir shops selling 'zen' items and restaurants specialising in 'zen' cuisine for about 10-15 minutes before reaching the site of the temple. It all felt quite commercial and not very 'zen-like'.

 

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The enormous temple complex is located deep in the mountains, and consisted of 70 buildings, as well as a cedar tree forest and a cemetery. The temple had been burnt down by several fires over the centuries (this seems to be the case with many of the temples in Japan), and the oldest structure on the current site dates back to 1794. Since Eihei-ji is a training monastery with more than two hundred monks and nuns in residence, there are many rules that visitors have to follow to minimise the disruption on the practicing monks and nuns.

 

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One of the main temple attractions is Sanshokaku (Reception Hall) and its ceiling covered with 230 paintings of flowers and birds by 144 different artists completed in 1930.

 

As a visitor, it is hard not to be impressed by the beautiful architecture and the maze-like complex, but I did find the ambience to be quite austere and the temple more polished than I imagined. After I started to study writings by Master Dogen and other prominent Zen teachers like Shunryu Suzuki, Kodo Sawaki, Kosho Uchiyama, and Gudo Wafu Nishijima for the last few years, I couldn't help but feel that the temple is almost too grand and immaculate. Perhaps my preconceived ideas have let me down, and I probably would have been more in awe of the complex as a sightseeing visitor.

 

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Having said that, there are several buildings that are forbidden for visitors to enter, including the monks' quarters (Sodo), where the monks eat, sleep and meditate; the kitchen (Daikuin) where the meals for the monks is prepared every day; and the baths and toilets (Yokushitsu and Tosu). And after watching a NHK documentary on the monks' daily lives at Eiheiji, I gathered that the monks' quarters are more modest and simple than the halls in the main buildings.

 

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After my visit around the temple, I followed the path and walked up the mountain along the river. There are many amazing giant cedar trees on the temple grounds, and some are around 500 years old. This was my favourite part of the complex, and I thoroughly enjoyed the tranquility and nature here.

 

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It was lucky that I arrived early, because I saw coaches of Japanese tourists arriving as I was leaving the temple complex. I find it hard to imagine how the practicing monks here can cope with the infux of tourists that the temple receives daily (apparently, it can reach up to 6000-7000). And in order to attract more tourists especially from the neighbouring China and South Korea, the temple and the local authority has started a redevelopment programme. Not only a new 18-room hotel will open in 2019, there will also be a new tourist information centre, and the restoration of the temple road according to the maps from the 1600s. I can't help but wonder how the temple can maintain a balance between tranquility and tourism in the future. After my visit to Shirakawa-go, I am starting to fear the worst... It would be a shame if tourists are visiting just for photo opportunities rather than trying to learn more about the practice and the teachings by Dogen.

As my teacher keeps emphasising: the practice of zazen and Zen is about balancing our body-mind (body and mind is considered as one in the East). And in this day and age, I feel that all of us need this 'balance' more than ever – it probably explains why the teachings of Buddhism and the practice of Mindfulness are becoming more popular in recent years. Hence I certainly hope that the temple that advocates this philosophy/ practice will demonstrate that it is possible to achieve the balanced state.

 

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This post was posted in Architecture, Travel, Nature, Buddhism & meditation, Anything Japanese, Architectural conservation, Japan and was tagged with nature, temples, Japan, Japanese architecture, Zen Buddhism, zazen, Eiheiji, Master Dogen

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