Japan is a country renowned for its temples and shrines, stemming from its dual religious heritage of Buddhism and Shinto. Yet for many foreigners in Japan, the spiritual aspect of these buildings remains alien and too often shrines and temples are only significant as a backdrop for photographs and for the souvenirs they sell. However, this need not be the case. Every two months, the Myoho-ji Temple hosts a free, foreigner-friendly meditation class that allows a rare insight into the heart of an active temple and an introduction to the art of Zen. Oscar Boyd and Tomo Greer from Fukuoka Now attended one of these sessions and report on their first experience of Zen Buddhism, Japanese style.
The Myoho-ji Temple is located to the east of Fukuoka overlooking the bay towards Saitozaki Island. Though it is a little difficult to find, the organisers provide transport from Chihaya Station ensuring every participant arrives relaxed and ready. While the temple is relatively new, it does not lack any of the spirit or tradition of older temples and upon arriving we were taught to correctly perform ‘misogi’ the traditional hand-washing ritual undertaken before prayer.
How to perform Misogi
First, scoop up some water in the ladle with your right hand and pour it over your left. Next, hold the ladle with your left hand and pour water over your right. In your left hand, take some water from the ladle and rinse your mouth (do not touch the ladle to your mouth). Lastly, using the remaining water, tip the ladle to rinse it off.
Following an opportunity to pray at the shrine, we were led into the temple complex where we were greeted by the heady smell of burning incense. Shoes off, we walked along wooden floors to the temple’s main room which was laid out with several benches facing the main shrine (this class does not require hours of sitting uncomfortably on cross-legged or on one’s knees).
The group was introduced to three monks (坊さん – bōsan) and then under the direction of one, Mr. Shimizu, to the basic concepts of Zazen (lit: seated meditation). In a beautifully soft, reverential voice (the kind that seems appropriate to someone who has spent their life in silent meditation) he talked of Zazen as an opportunity to face yourself through meditation, and, while attempting to clear your mind, to contemplate upon the thoughts that do arise. But primarily, he spoke about love or amour (catering to the part Mexican audience) relating it through a metaphor of the sun, rain, trees and sea to gaining a deeper appreciation of nature and oneself. While he spoke in Japanese, it was translated into English throughout.
Before meditation, the monks chanted a sutra (a passage of religious text), their voices intertwining in recitation over the deep tones of a bell. The last stroke of the bell marked the beginning of the meditation period and the revolving sound of its lower harmonics carried through the first few minutes of meditation, adding a mystical aura to the whole process. A warning to those interested, when a room full of people falls completely silent, a rumbling stomach becomes very loud, so make sure you eat well before attending. There is also a danger of becoming ‘too relaxed’ through meditation, and the swaying of someone falling asleep carries through the benches, so a decent night’s sleep is also advised.
Meditation lasted for just over 40 minutes, though in truth all sense of time was lost. After meditation, we were treated to tea and coffee from an espresso machine that seemed at odds with the temple environment. We were able to talk with the monks on a more personal level and each took the time to ask us how we felt throughout the process and provided us with well translated literature on various aspects of Zen and meditation. We then had an opportunity for a photo before being taken back to Chihaya Station by car (two of the more advanced members levitated there).
The class provided a perfect introduction to meditation and the basics of Zen Buddhism. The organisers are extremely friendly and exceptionally open to non-Japanese people, hoping to offer a greater level of insight into the practices and traditions of a Japanese Zen Buddhist Temple.
Zazen Meditation Class
Next Session: March 7, 10:00
Location: Myohoji Fukuoka Branch, 5-9-38 Kasumigaoka, Higashi-ku, Fukuoka City
Price: Free but reservation required!
How to reserve: Contact the Temple via the FukuokaNow Classifieds here.
What to bring: Comfy clothes, a full stomach.
Report and photos by Oscar Boyd and Tomo Greer
Oscar is a student from London, UK. He is a keen hiker and aims to summit every mountain in Fukuoka visible from his bedroom window. If you have any suggestions contact him on Twitter @omhboyd