I came to Japan assuming that I would have plenty of opportunities to study Buddhism since Japan is home to the Zen practice. You know what they say about making assumptions… Needless to say I have only had one opportunity to truly practice meditation with a buddhist teacher who speaks English – I guess that’s where my assumption had gone wrong – I thought there would be more people who speak English… Luckily for me I found the Shunkoin Temple in Kyoto.
The Shunkoin Temple is located in the Myoshinji Temple complex. It is about a 5-10 minute walk from the JR Hanazono train station. Once you find the front gate of the Myoshinji area, there is a guard who can give you direction to the Shunkoin Temple. (The complex is relatively large).
(photo credit: http://www.tripadvisor.com/LocationPhotos-g298564-d1013470-Shunkoin_Temple_Guest_House-Kyoto_Kyoto_Prefecture_Kinki.html)
I was met at the gate by a young woman who instructed me to sit and wait for the monk who would take me through the meditation.
After waiting for about 5-10 minutes a monk arrived and greeted me. He spoke perfect English and was relatively friendly.
(Photo credit: http://www.nomadik.nu/tag/temple/)
I had reviewed the practice and what to expect on the temple’s blog and sure enough I was taken to the room that was displayed.
Photo credit: http://www.ilovejapan.ca/newsletter/Newsletter_XMAS09.html
The room was long and narrow, the floor was covered with tatami mats, one wall was bare while the opposite wall was open to a garden. It was very beautiful and offered a nice view while meditating.
photo credit: http://shunkoinzentemple.blogspot.jp/
I sat at a 90 degree angle to the monk so we were not facing each other but we could still look at each other as we spoke. When he first began his dharma talk I wasn’t sure if I should just listen or if I should participate in a conversation so I opted to quietly listen. We then began our first 15 minute meditation. After 15 minutes of sitting quietly I was like a pot of boiling water with the lid left on! He rang the bell and all of a sudden my lid popped off and I couldn’t stop talking to him! Its funny what 15 minutes of structured silence will do to a person! I had meditated prior to this but it was with a room full of people and everyone talked… this situation was just the two of us and I couldn’t shut up! It was actually good because it gave me the opportunity to talk to him about the purpose of my visit to Kyoto (to meditate) and ask him if he knew of any other English speaking meditation groups in the area (he didn’t). We had 2 separate 15 minute meditation sessions and then the meditation portion was ended.
The monk then began to take me on a short tour of the temple and offered me some green tea and a sweet. The entire event lasted about an hour and cost me 2,000 yen. I asked if I returned would I have the same exact experience and he said yes, so there was no need to return to the temple for an additional visit.
I would definitely recommend this experience to anyone visiting Kyoto who is interested in meditation. It was a unique experience and not many people can say that they have meditated with a Buddhist monk in the heart of Japan’s cultural home of Kyoto. But.. don’t have too high expectations. The monk is relatively friendly, but as far as monks go I think he was a bit stand-offish about foreigners visiting temples and what services other temples offer. He will hold a conversation with you but he is not overly helpful (meaning I asked for his advice on how I could continue my practice and he basically didn’t give me any!) At the end, I felt a bit rushed out of the temple. So, while I am glad I had this experience, I think I had the expectation that the monk would float in the air and spew glitter from his fingertips and I was sadly disappointed. He’s just a regular person like you and me!
As I was leaving I heard some monks chanting at one of the other temples in the area. Turn up the volume so you can hear them – its short, but it was soooo cool to hear them!