Sogenji Journal - A View From the Hermitage

IMG_1170 Sogenji owns several hundred acres of forested mountain behind the monastery, which makes it feel far from the city of Okayama that is actually lapping at its front doorstep. At the top of the hill, about a half mile by trail and scramble up a steep ravine, sits a small hermitage. What a contrast to the great hondo temple at the bottom of the hill!

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Students are permitted, by invitation of the roshi, to do a “doku sesshin”, or solitary retreat at the hermitage. The length of the retreat can vary from a few days to a full month. I was invited to do a short, three day doku sesshin this week, during the heart of my time at Sogenji.

During doku sesshin, the student comes down from the mountain morning and evening for sanzen (personal interview) with the roshi, and to retrieve food that has been left for pickup. It is all set up so that there is no contact between the retreatant and the rest of the community during doku sesshin, except for the essential daily meetings with the roshi. Back up at the hermitage, one can use the time for practice in whatever way one chooses, which is a great freedom, and opportunity for integrating practice into daily life, after the tight ritual structure that governs life at the monastery.

My doku sesshin, which ended this morning, was a deeply nourishing time for me. There is an intricate system of trails through the hills, laced with pilgrimage sites and small temples, that have been traveled by pilgrims for centuries. It felt great to include a vigorous hike each day, along with zazen, studying and journaling. It is not a time for zoning out though. The energy of the monastery down below wafts up the hill, and the meetings with Harada twice a day help hold ones feet to the fire.

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It has been fifteen years since I was last at Sogenji. In between I have attended many retreats with Harada at Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island. During much of that time, I have wrestled with strong feelings of self-doubt and inadequacy in my practice. Will I ever be "good" enough. Can I ever come up to this roshi's standards? I worried a bit, in coming back to Sogenji, whether those old daemons might be here waiting for me.

But a lot has changed for me in the intervening years, and it feels like the tide is turning in the direction of acceptance and self-compassion. Some of that change is probably just the drumbeat of aging. My old habit of refusing to accept things as they are – in myself, in others, and in the world – of swimming against the current of reality, is simply running out of gas. I find myself able to turn toward things as they are these days, with less judgement and resistance, more openness and humility - even the most difficult aspects of my life. Maybe it's fair to say that I am finally growing up.

Instead of always trying to practice harder, I'm learning to practice softer, as Michael Wenger has put it. “Practicing softer” is not in Harada's vocabulary or cultural self-understanding. But it is in mine, and that shift toward a softer holding of things has made all the difference. It has even made it possible for me to practice fruitfully again in this difficult training environment that the young monks here like to call “Samurai Boot Camp”.

Working with some really good American teachers over the last decade has helped me soften these sharp edges in myself. Particularly fruitful has been my work with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Norman Fischer and Rodney Smith, who have helped immensely in translating these traditional Asian dharma forms into a vernacular that flows more fluidly, for me at least, as an American lay practitioner.

Teaching MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) has also been hugely beneficial to the integration of my practice into daily life. Learning to meet people where they are within my own culture, to present the basic tools of dharma practice without its traditional Buddhist scaffolding, and with the collaborating perspectives of Western psychology and neuroscience, has given a lot of fresh traction to my understanding of these emerging dharma forms.

The beauty, for me, of this time at Sogenji is its cementing of a “both/and” understanding, in place of the “either/or” approach that had me locked down for so long. The rigors of training here are a reminder that this practice takes strong motivation and commitment, and I can feel how the potency of the Sogenji training model is firming up my core motivation to practice.

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But it is also reaffirming my core identity as an American lay practitioner. I am not called to be a monk. I am called to a life in the world, as a teacher, explorer, husband and father, and as a “kayaking guide” who is learning to ride the converging rip tides of many Buddhist tributaries flowing into a new dharma river in the West. It is a wild ride for sure.

Mostly, I'm feeling great gratitude for this time at Sogenji, and for the great good fortune of being able to train with such an extraordinary teacher as Harada, among such gifted and dedicated practitioners from all over the world.