A zen retreat in Japan – ANGO

( Translation from french to english : Hilary Mac Ray )

In 2008 I had the chance to spend three months in Japan for a traditional Zen retreat called ‘ango.’ The temple which welcomed me is led by Master Shundo Aoyama Roshi, a venerable woman nearly 80 years old. It is world – renowned for its practice of Ikebana and its spiritual works:I would especially recommend reading the book ‘Zen and life’ ( Editions Sully)

Extracts from a diary of a spiritual retreat in Japan.

Friday 28 Dec 2007

Well, here I am ! Aichi Senmon Nisodo, a training monastery for nuns led by Aoyama Roshi. A magnificent and very simple temple in the heart of Nagoya : a few hundred square metres which would be my home for the next three months. No telephone or computer, no heating….back to basics.

Tuesday 1st Jan 2008

A new year dawns in the land of the rising sun. Yesterday evening I rang the great bell, without great conviction. It was 1.30 in the morning and the inhabitants from the local neighbourhood had gathered to chant a Hannya Shingyo ( Heart Sutra) and, above all , to go up into the little chapel where the great bell hangs for a ‘Bong!’ full of hope. Aoyama Roshi welcomed some of them, with a beaming and naughty smile and heard the news of each one. We, the ‘Niso’ were assembled round about, wearing tabis ( white cotton socks) on the cold marble, with an outside temperature around freezing. A very beautiful and very cold image of the transmission! With a superficial smile, I thought with a tight chest , of the wake up bell at La Gendronniere, the great log fire and joyful reunions.

My new year’s wish was frozen solid…

Thurs 15 Jan 2008

I have been taken on in the ‘Chiden’ team, which is concerned with the ceremonies and the Hatto ( the chapel for ceremonies.) It’s just wonderful to be able to dedicate the greater part of one’s days to making offerings: water, rice, incense… All the rituals have a precision like clockwork and we spend a lot of time rehearsing, so we also learn it with our body.

Every day brings its share of new responsibilities and the hours fly past. Speed is, it seems, one of the key notes of practice in this temple and was the most difficult part. Everything happens with urgency, ..wake up, getting dressed, getting ready….No time to reflect, it was all about allowing oneself to slide into the arms of Buddha and to dance and let everything go. This was in itself a problem: I am more into rock than Buto Japanese dance and Buddha got his toes trodden on many times!

Sunday 26th January 2008

It’s 5 pm and I had been up at 4.45 am and there are still thousands of gestures to absorb for the ceremony tomorrow. A mental survival kit has created itself, with this saving motto , ‘Is it real?’ When I am ranting, when “ I’d prefer it if..” when “If only..” when “ In my opinion”… bam! The brakes are on and Dharma takes back control of the car.Brief and wonderful windows into the body. And the Japanese birds punctuated the hours with joyful commentaries.

Wednesday 13th Feb 2008

La grande clocheWe are in sesshin ( an intensive retreat) for the last 2 days. I am so tired. Getting up at 3.45am, zazen, oryoki, samu etc…. No spare time.

The test of the day: the recitation of Fukanzazengi slowly, for 40 minutes, with the sutra book ( the sacred texts of Buddhism) at eye level with the arms raised. “Please dear misters of the Soto Shu

( the zen administration in Japan) the book is too heavy! Next time thing about using thinner paper”

Thursday 1st March 2008

A nun brings me a croissant : I ‘m dreaming. I gulped it down with joy.. in front of my 5 room mates. This is one of the greatest difficulties here : a total absence of personal space. We are with others 24/7 for all activities. At this moment my neighbour on the right is having a discussion over my head with my neighbour on the left, while I am trying to remember how to speak French. I’m irritated. The attachment to space or territory seems to come from ancient depths and I find its profane power hard to believe.

Every day thus offers a new learning and little by little allows the richness of the practice at Nisodo to flower: difficult for sure and very demanding, but brimful of treasure.

Friday March 15th 2008

Shundo Aoyama Roshi envelops my joined hands in hers, in a firm yet soft gesture, leans over and slides these words over me “ Don’t forget: each difficulty is a Dharma – door.” It’s 10 am. I am leaving the temple of Aichi Senmon Nisodo after three months of ango. An hour earlier there was a farewell ceremony; Sampai ( prostrations) before the assembled nuns, grateful thanks “ Thank you for your example at each moment, thank you for these thousands of gifts..”

Once more the words stagger in the face of the enormity of the gift.

Friday 21Mar 2008

Back in Ryumon – Ji ( A Zen temple in France) for the Easter sesshin ( retreat) which takes place in silence : zazen, oryoki, samu and the clear eyes of my Dharma companions. I have a new kimono “made in Japan” (!) a new rakusu, memories of a simple and demanding practice, but above all else – an immense confidence deep in my heart. “ I have had the chance to be this monk wearing a robe of rags. I have had the chance to make way for the truths of the universe. Like this white fabric floating in the wind, I now wish to live this life without any attachments.

Le Hatto, chapelle bouddhiste