A secretary of the department where I worked at Nagoya University, knowing my interest in meditation, put me in contact with a monk of the Soto Zen tradition, Sushoku Roshi (Uchiyama Roshi’s disciple), who lived in the mountains stretching between the old capitals Kyoto and Nara. The monastery was surrounded by nature and exemplified perfectly the wabi-sabi idea, beautiful in its imperfection and rustic simplicity.
That was how, during the three years I lived in Japan, I attended every month a retreat (sesshin) of three days, facing the wall hour after hour, in the company of a few people with similar spiritual concerns (I was the only gaikokujin).
From the first retreat, Sushoku Roshi made it clear that he wouldn’t accept my money, so I always arrived with some rice, fruits and green tea, though all the gold of the Roman mines in Iberia wouldn’t be enough to repay his generosity and silent teachings.
The four seasons exuded through each of the retreats. The bright snows of the winter months, the perfumed flowers of the fruit trees in spring, the shrill chirping of cicadas in summer, or the pitch-black starry nights of fall, all had their particular charm, and somehow affected the quality of meditation.
The retreat was spent in complete silence, with no other sounds than those of nature and the footprints on the old tatami. We lived amid the austere formality of a practice imported from the continent but that has been marinated for many centuries with the own spices of the islands.
The night before and after of the retreat, we all soaked in the ofuro, a hot bath in a black iron-pot with capacity for one person, heated from its base with a pine-wood fire (it wouldn’t be felt strange to see around sharp-teethed cannibals).
For the meals, each one of us had three bowls in order of decreasing size for rice, vegetables and preserved radish, respectively. The last one was served sliced and it was very useful to wash the bowl with a little of water. Finally, the bowls were dried with a cloth and stacked, while the cloth and sticks were placed on top. The most spectacular part of the operation was at the end, when the set had to be tied up with a handkerchief in a movement that requires some practice. Without having to wash dishes, everything was left ready for the next meal.
At the end of the retreat, we descended together the mountain, just in time to take a small bus out of a village in the valley to a nearer town, where in turn we had to take a bus to the train station of the charming city of Uji, known throughout Japan for its temple Byodoin, of unsurpassed aesthetic harmony. Uji is also famous for its excellent green tea, to which I’d add its red bean and rice cakes (perhaps a biased comment given how well everything tastes after a retreat).
From Uji, we took a commuter train to Kyoto station (spectacular in any other city than Kyoto, whose atmosphere invites to a different architectural solution), where each one of us departed to our final destination.
The progressive descent from the pristine mountains to the most populous cities had a bittersweet taste because, on one hand the trip gave me the opportunity to chat with my silent companions: a retired school-teacher of German, a professional dancer, a businessman, a renowned monk from Antaiji temple, and a woman whose voice was way too sweet, bordering on profound shyness. But, on the other hand, as nature was staying behind and I got more and more immersed in what we call civilization, the noise, artificial lights and, specially, the faces of the people on the public transportation brought me back to a reality that looked more like a dream, and not a pleasant one.