First things first: anyone who thinks that a temple on the edge of a forest will be a quiet place to practice might be as familiar as I am with living on the edge of a forest, and that is not very familiar at all. And second: Horakuan is, indeed, a place of stillness and quiet in the midst of cacophonies of sound. This is a fine place to begin.
Having experienced work practice in a number of countries, in a variety of ways, I was eager to visit Horakuan, which is a Buddhist dojo in the Rinzai tradition, nestled in a dimple in the Japanese Alps. Climb a mountain dotted by small plots alongside people’s homes, and keep climbing higher and higher, and there is Horakuan, with its sloping red roof and aged clay exterior walls. On the hill above Horakuan is Ryuyukutsu, a small, two-storied temple with space for tea ceremony downstairs and sitting meditation upstairs
Beneath Horakuan’s sloping red roof is a wide open space that is delineated into smaller spaces by sliding, movable walls: you will find an entryway, a kitchen, washrooms, two large living spaces that are four tatami wide, some small storage rooms, a dusty loft, and along the back wall of the structure: a dimly-lit intimate ceremonial space.
In this space, you will see rows of quilted zabutons and round, black zafus. These line the opposite walls of the dojo, just a few feet from the draping golden chandelier, which dangles over the central seat from which the priest (in this case, a cheerful and generous German émigré named Dorothee) chants the sutras.
Surrounding Horakuan are flower gardens, a brand new path for walking meditation, and forest, the trees of which I cannot name. Within the most intimate trees, those close enough to touch and smell and truly admire, are the monkeys famous in this part of Japan: the so-called snow monkeys, or rose-faced white-haired macaques. You might see them leaping from the stone driveway to the grassy meadow to those closest of trees. They might, as they did me, peek out at you from between the branches. You might also see young red foxes bounding through the meadow, playing carelessly like children, also peeking at you through the high grass and then disappearing into the forest. You will also see white, orange, brown, beautiful butterflies that abound at Horakuan. Beyond the immediate treeline are high mountains of continuous green. From Horakuan, low-hanging clouds and mist sometimes shroud the tops of the mountains, which gives them a legendary quality; at other times, on less cloudy days, the mountains are pure, clear, undeniably green. Either way, they’re simply gorgeous.
These are some of the things that you will perceive.
These are some of the things that you will hear.
Running water. Birdsongs. Rain as it hits the roof, the stone driveways and walkways, and the leaves of the trees. The chirps and clicks and high-pitched squeaking sounds made by unknown sentient beings. Monkey screams from the forest in the distance. Wind, as it caresses or thrusts its way through the forest, making a sound that is very difficult to describe; a very deep ‘sh’ sound, or a long exhale from someone’s wide-open mouth. Occasionally, you will hear the humming of a vehicle on a nearby road. You might hear a ringing in your ears, the thumping of your pulse, a growling in your stomach, or the cracking of bones in your knees or your back as you sit, kneel, bend, squat, reach, push, pull, or conduct any other movement as you complete your work assigned for the day.
Because Horakuan was once a Japanese farmhouse, you will certainly hear feet meeting floor: the beautiful, shiny, dark wood floors are the creakiest I have ever heard. Entering the kitchen, just outside of the meditation hall, within the meditation hall itself, along the front hallway that is lined with sliding glass doors: loud, creaking floors. Even if you were to creep through the house, carefully tip-toeing or walking slowly and mindfully, you will hear the floor talking back to you. “I’m old,” it seems to be saying.
Within the meditation hall, besides feet meeting floor, you will hear Dorothee lighting incense and candles. You will hear her invoking the Buddhas and Bodhisatvas, a sound I have heard countless times in Vietnamese, a ritual chanting shared by all Mahayana schools of Buddhism. And the other sounds of meditation: rear-ends and knees and legs meeting cushions, breathing, and occasional movement. Later, some stretching sounds, warming up the muscles and tendons and blood for rising and walking once again on the old floors that make themselves heard.
Returning very briefly to sight, to what you will see: prepare yourself well for the darkness of the night. There is a sort of semi-darkness of night in a city, and a slightly-darker-darkness of night in the suburbs, and a moon-lit darkness of the American countryside. But nothing compares to the darkness of night at Horakuan. Perhaps because of its elevation, or its huddled position within a valley in the mountains, or because of persistent cloud cover at this time of year, you will barely have the light of the moon. It is, to engage a cliché, pitch black.
At night, one might (as I did) have trouble distinguishing between sounds outside of Horakuan and sounds inside of Horakuan. Without the clear sight of bright or even overcast daytime, which is helpful in determining where a sound is originating, it can be cause for a certain fixation. A tenacious scraping sound: is that coming from the kitchen? –underneath the house? –on the roof? A prickly scratching sound: is that right next to me? –in another room? –just outside the door? A creaking cracking sound: is that the house ‘settling’? –is that a badger outside? –is that something come loose somewhere? The relative distance and nearness of sound is slippery in the dark. Something walking or crawling on the tatami mats – for instance, something as paper-light as a grasshopper – makes a sound that can be heard in a different room. In the daytime, it seems easy to know and accept that the sound of running water is coming from the stream that runs around the perimeter of Horakuan; but at night, it seems to be running right into the adjacent room. A tree lovingly letting go one of its branches onto the roof of the dojo in the back of the house could be an animal of some sort entering Horakuan to surprise the resident with a ‘Hello!’
Night is full of sounds. For the city-dweller, it can be a difficult transition. As counterintuitive as it seems, the sounds of running water and crows in the distance and harmless insects crawling and hopping on bamboo floors can be very off-putting for someone accustomed to the sounds of loud music blaring from passing cars and people’s unmodulated voices and ambulances rushing to the most recent catastrophe. People buy music that is called ‘Forest Sounds,” and that is the sound that you will hear at Horakuan. One might have to adjust, as I did. But, really: the natural sounds of Horakuan are just that: the sounds of nature.
Sounds punctuate the darkness, and then the resident must grapple with them in his or her own way.
When we sit on the cushion, as Buddhists of one stripe or another, we contemplate ourselves, our human condition: the suffering therein, the causes of that suffering, and the most skillful ways to live so that we don’t continue causing the same kinds of suffering throughout our lives. We sit on the cushion and observe ourselves: our minds and our physical bodies. Is there pain in our knees? –in our backs? Are we hungry, worried, excited, angry, curious? Are we anxious after sitting for only a few minutes (“Oh! When will that bell ring? I can’t stand to sit here doing nothing!”), or are we so settled on the cushion that we are resentful when the bell rings to bow and stand (“Oh! I was enjoying sitting and doing nothing! Now I have to return to life!”)? When we rise from the cushion, we strive to bring that same concentration and effort to the rest of our lives.
In some schools of Buddhism, there is an emphasis on dualism and non-dualism. This could be described as seeing things as opposites, and imbuing unnecessary meaning in those opposites. For example, a ‘good sit’ versus a ‘bad sit.’ A ‘good sit’ might be a period of meditation in which there is no bodily pain and the mind isn’t jumping around from one extreme to another; on the other hand, a ‘bad sit’ might be marred by painful knees, erratic breathing, or mental disquiet. We might be encouraged by our Buddhist practice to see a sit as simply whatever it is; with pain or without, clear mind or monkey mind, it is whatever it is. It is fine as it is. The longer one practices, on and off the cushion, the more effortless it becomes to see there isn’t much need in labeling things as ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ a ‘gain’ or a ‘loss,’ or ‘benefiting me’ or ‘costing me.’
This is not to say that, when we practice, we lose our selves, we lose our opinions, thoughts, feelings, our histories, our ability and right to make choices in our lives, our judgments of things that we encounter day to day. Rather, it means that we see the futility of taking everything personally, making everything about ‘me,’ or holding steadfastly to fixed views. In fact, Zen practice both on and off of the cushion fosters a quiet space within ourselves to challenge this notion of ‘I.’ Who am I? How have I come to be this person? And how can I utilize my history, my wisdom, my attributes to benefit others?
Where Zazen and Horakuan meet is the quiet space within the wilderness of sound. Distinguishing between sounds inside and outside, sounds that are near me or far away from me, sounds that are illuminated by daylight or obscured by darkness becomes effort that can be concentrated in sitting, walking, weeding, cleaning, eating, bathing, and back to sitting. Sound returns to sound. This is the quiet space that I found at Horakuan.
by Wendy G.