by Marianne Dresser
A place we really belong is sometimes hard to find.
Hazy late-afternoon sunlight filtered through the pines, revealing an undisturbed layer of duff on the path. The taxis from the train station had brought our group up the mountain until the paved road gave way to this gravel path; from there, we walked.
Craving a bit of solitude after a few days in Tokyo, where the tour had begun, I’d walked ahead and was soon enveloped in the quiet of the dense forest. The stillness was broken only by the soft crunch of my own footsteps and the rushing water in the stream alongside the path. My shoulders unclenched as the stress of the day’s journey—from the early-morning commuter crush of Ueno Station into the mountains of Yamanashi Prefecture—ebbed away. I would soon arrive at Zuigakuin, a rural Buddhist temple, where, the trip brochure promised, we would experience “a taste of traditional Zen monastic life.”
Our guides had prepared us: the rustic temple had no electricity; we would rely on candles and kerosene lanterns for light and a woodstove in a small common room for heat. Water came from the icy stream, and the communal bath, o-furo , was heated by a hand-stoked woodstove. During our brief overnight stay we would join the daily schedule—evening and morning meditation, daily chores, and services. Zuigakuin was one of very few working temples in Japan that allowed tourist visits. The temple master, Moriyama Roshi, had served at a Zen temple in San Francisco for a few years, and liked Westerners; indeed, his disciple Joshin was a Frenchwoman who had recently become a nun.
The day before we had been introduced to zazen , sitting meditation, at a Zen temple in Tokyo. Jiho, an American woman and Buddhist nun of many years, led us to the meditation hall, where we arranged ourselves on the thick, round meditation cushions called zafus . She showed us how to turn to face the wall with a bow, and, after gently adjusting our postures, she struck a large bronze bell three times, beginning the meditation session. Twenty minutes later, a single toll of the bell ended it.
Afterward, as Jiho patiently answered the group’s questions, I sat silently, reviewing my first experience of meditation. It might have been two minutes or two hours, so elastic was the quality of time. I was amazed that simply by sitting calmly and following my breath, I could begin to observe the workings of my own mind. The experience had also left me feeling a bit unsettled. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to look too deeply. There were a lot of painful memories; did I really want to stir them all up? Yet I also found it powerfully compelling. Anxiety and curiosity in equal measure.
So I felt excited and a little nervous about the adventure ahead as I rounded the last turn in the path and caught a glimpse of the temple buildings. Tucked against the hillside, surrounded by tall, stately pines, the graceful lines of the old wooden structures evoked an ancient, exotic world. Yet I was flooded with a powerful emotion, an unexpected sense of familiarity. It felt as if I had taken a huge gulp of air after resurfacing from a deep dive. I knew this place.
As I approached, a tall, slim woman appeared in the entryway. Her sharp Gallic features heightened the forbidding effect of her shaved head and somber black robes. She gazed at me intently for a few moments, then called out “Ah, good, you’re here!” and the stern image dissolved. We exchanged smiles and bows. Joshin beckoned me with a friendly but slightly impatient wave, as if I were a child returning home late for supper.
“Dozo, dozo! Welcome! Please come in!” Roshi greeted me as I slipped off my shoes in the entryway and slid into one of the pairs of slippers lined up in a neat row on the lower step. Generous eyebrows animated his kind face. Bowing slightly, he guided me into a large room. “Sit, please,” he said, and then rejoined Joshin to greet the rest of the group as they straggled up the path.
I studied the room. A large thermos, a teapot, and a lacquered tray of teacups sat on a long, low black table, reflected in the dark mirror of its surface. I settled onto one of the zafus placed at precise intervals around the table. Pale light illuminated the shoji screens and glanced off the shiny, well-worn tatami floor. A large altar dominated one wall. It held bowls of fruit, incense urns, flower vases, candles, and several Buddha figures. A deep peacefulness permeated the room and I soaked it up, contented. I was home.
Later I reasoned that the casual welcome I’d received from Joshin and Roshi must have been intended for the group as a whole. But at that moment I felt that it was meant for me personally. The lack of formality—surprising in a culture and a tradition known for their rigorous rules of decorum—seemed to acknowledge a longstanding connection. I had been instantly recognized—the prodigal daughter—by a French nun and a Japanese Zen master, neither of whom I had ever met before. Or so I thought.
The only familial bond we shared was a suffocating cloak of denial. When company came for summer barbeques and holiday get-togethers, we played our roles in an elaborate illusion of normality. But after everyone left, the fractures rematerialized like cracks coming up through a shoddy paint job.
I learned to make myself invisible inside, especially when my drunken father was on the prowl for a fight. Outside, I led a tomboy life of unsupervised adventure, which later evolved into a spectacular adolescent rebellion. At seventeen, I escaped. A scholarship paid my way to a bucolic alternative college, but I couldn’t settle down and soon dropped out. I took off on a cross-country trip, living out of my camper truck. Four months later I landed in San Francisco, where some college friends had settled. The city became my home base, though I moved to a different apartment every year or two. Whenever I’d saved enough money from working one dead-end job after another, I’d travel to some far-off place where I was as much of a stranger outwardly as I felt inside.
In my previous visits I’d seen some famous sites—temples, shrines, imperial gardens—and while these places were beautiful, their inner lives remained sealed from view. I’d never been to a temple as anything other than a tourist. Still, I didn’t think of this trip as a spiritual quest. I never imagined that my travels, which by design and desire took me far away from all that was familiar, would lead me to my true home.
Zuigakuin had already became more than a stop on the itinerary for me. I’d only just arrived and I didn’t ever want to leave. The sense of belonging registered on a deep level. I didn’t fully understand this feeling, but I didn’t question it. During afternoon zazen I let it permeate my consciousness. The dark corners of my mind didn’t seem so threatening now. Interest eclipsed anxiety.
In the prayer service after meditation, as we stumbled through the Heart Sutra in the Buddha hall, it, too, felt familiar. Knowing some Japanese helped with intoning the syllables. But nothing could have prepared me for the mystery of such phrases as “form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” What did it mean to have “no eyes, no ears, no tongue, no body, no mind”? What would it be like to dwell, like the bodhisattva, “in perfect wisdom,” to have “no hindrance in the mind and therefore no fear”?
Afterward everyone pitched in to help prepare noodle soup for the evening meal. Roshi explained that this was an “unofficial” meal. The monastic rules had originated in ancient India, and stipulated only two daily meals, at breakfast and midday.
“India is hot country. Monks don’t need much food. In China and Japan, winter is very cold and monks must work. So we need food at night. But we call it ‘evening medicine,’ not to break our vows!” Roshi laughed.
Most of my fellow travelers went upstairs to sleep soon after dinner. A few of us remained sitting around the woodstove, enjoying a last bit of tea and warmth before turning in. I could hear Joshin in the kitchen, preparing thermoses of hot water for the morning. Then she slid back the shoji, poked her head into the room, and said, “Marianne- san , will you come help me, please?”
Now, when Joshin spoke, it wasn’t tentative. Her no-nonsense manner combined the brusque style of the urbane Parisian she had been with the imperturbability of the Zen nun she had become. I could say yes or no, her tone conveyed, but please answer directly and don’t waver! I got up and followed her immediately, to the mild surprise of the others. They probably wondered why I had been chosen, or, from their point of view, singled out for more work. But there was nothing more to be done in the kitchen. Joshin pointed to a pair of well-worn slippers at the doorstep. “Come on,” she said, waving me after her as she stepped outside.
We sat at a roughhewn log bench outside. Lamplight softly illuminated the shoji windows, and muted voices floated across the stillness. We rested companionably, in silence, while Joshin indulged her secret vice. She produced a pouch of Gauloise tobacco from the pocket of her jacket, balanced it on her knees, and deftly rolled two cigarettes. She lit one and inhaled deeply. And then we talked.
I was drawn to Joshin, to her calmness and confidence. She represented a way of life that I had not known existed, much less considered. How had she, a thirtyish Western woman, come to be living at a small Buddhist temple in a Japanese backwoods? Joshin spoke of her bourgeois French Catholic upbringing, her career as a journalist, then the years practicing at various European Buddhist centers. Two years before she had left everything—home, family, relationship, career—to come to Japan and find a “real Zen master.”
“So you were looking for a teacher. But what if you’re not even looking?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
I described the feeling I had when I’d first arrived. “Everything felt so familiar to me. I’ve been to Japan before, but that wasn’t it. I don’t know why, but I just felt at home here right away. And that doesn’t happen very often.”
She nodded, lighting up her second cigarette. She described coming to Zuigakuin. She had planned to visit several monasteries in hopes of finding a teacher to accept her as a student, and had never heard of Moriyama Roshi or Zuigakuin. A monk at a Tokyo temple had suggested she visit. There was no phone so she couldn’t call to make arrangements in advance, and didn’t want to wait for a reply to a letter. So she bought a train ticket and just showed up. No one was there when she arrived, so for two weeks she stayed there alone, eating rice and potatoes, maintaining the daily meditation schedule, and doing chores around the place. Then Roshi returned. When he saw her, he said only, “Oh, you’ve arrived.” She ordained as a nun a few months later.
“It’s amazing that you could just stumble onto a place like that,” I said.
Joshin regarded me thoughtfully. “That is how it happens sometimes.”
She took another deep drag from her cigarette and released a languid stream of smoke.
“But it is not really so strange. You’ll see.”
We had been sitting outside for some time. Light still glowed faintly from the common room but the arcs of flashlight beams from upstairs had long since ceased. The chill seeped into my bones. We would be awakened at 4:30 a.m. for morning meditation and service, followed by breakfast and temple cleaning. Then our group would be off to the next stop, a Shinto shrine.
Joshin stood up and brushed off her clothes. “Good night, Marianne- san . You can find your way to the guest room all right?”
“Yes, I’ll be fine. It was nice talking with you.”
“We’ll talk again. Get some sleep. The day starts very early in a Zen temple!”
“Thank you for the talk last night. I’d like to visit again someday.”
“Yes, please come back as soon as you can. Roshi would like to see you again. He asked me to tell you to continue with your practice and come spend more time with us.”
I took a deep breath. Continue with my practice . Roshi’s and Joshin’s invitation showed me the path. Their words formed a thread I could trail behind me, away from Zuigakuin, down the road to the next destination. Whenever I chose, I could simply pick it up and follow it home.
The Japanese Buddhist concept of en means an intangible yet powerful link to a person, a relationship, a place—a bond that extends and is renewed through many lifetimes. The precepts ceremony of jukai , which signifies avowal of one’s commitment to Zen Buddhism, is also a reflection of the bond, the en , between master and disciple. The initiate is given a rakusu , a hand-sewn biblike garment that represents a monk’s robe, and receives a new name. The ritual is intended to give tangible form to the renunciation that is central to entering the Buddhist path.
Beginning a new spiritual life involves dying to old ways, giving up former habits and attachments, in order to be reborn spiritually. In the Buddhist tradition, this is called, literally, “leaving home.” The new disciple is welcomed into her new life upon reciting three times the phrase “Now I enter my true family, my true home.”
Roshi was facing away from me, talking with someone. Noticing the slight commotion, he turned and saw me. His eyes registered delight. “Ah, Marianne- san !”
“Roshi- sama! ” I bowed deeply and said in my best, practiced accent, “Shibaraku, ne? ”
The casual greeting, something akin to “Long time, no see,” raised some eyebrows among the group. Within the strict hierarchies of the Japanese language, this greeting would normally be used only with immediate family members or a close friend. That a foreigner would address a revered master in such a way was doubtless seen as inappropriate, too intimate and informal. Even Joshin looked surprised, though more bemused than concerned.
Roshi smiled broadly and nodded, bowing. “So, ne . . . shibaraku, ne? he said. “Okaeri nasai .”
Marianne Dresser is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. “True Home” won the Silver Award for Travel and Healing in the Third Annual Solas Awards for Best Travel Writing.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.