From September 17 to October 5 I had the most unique experience of participating in an East-West spiritual exchange by spending almost three weeks in three different Zen Buddhist monasteries in Japan.
There were five participants in the program (see picture, l. to r., Sister Gaetane of Belgium, Brother Matteo of Italy, Brother Irénée of Belgium, Sister Clelia of Italy and I from North America). All of us are involved in Monastic Interreligious Dialogue in our respective countries. None of us had been part of an experience like this before this year.
Our journey began with a long car ride from the Osaka airport to the city of Okayama where we were to spend 4 days at Sogen-ji, a monastery of about 20 Buddhist monks and nuns. Because there are several westerners at this monastery it was felt that we would receive a good orientation to our other monastic visits. Indeed we were grateful for those four days where we were awakened at 3:30 a.m. and chanting sutras with great gusto by 4 a.m. We were each given to keep 5 bowls of various sizes which came stacked together and wrapped in a large napkin, along with chopsticks and a small linen towel to wipe our bowls after washing them in hot tea at the end of the meal. Eating in a Buddhist monastery is a very precise affair, with many rituals and "rules" to remember. We also learned the art of removing our shoes when entering a building without tripping over our feet; inside the buildings we walked barefoot. White socks were worn only for special ceremonies, not to keep one's feet warm!
From Sogen-ji, Sisters Gaetane, Clelia and I took a train to the city of Gifu where we spent 6 days at the women's monastery of Ten'ne-ji, a small community of about 12 women, all Japanese except for one young French woman who was our guide during our stay for everything from when to take a shower and bath, to reminding us about the "rules" at table, to when to wear our habits and white socks, to what our morning manual work would be and, when we had become more comfortable with each other, to share our monastic experience with her and she with us.
Finally, we spent out last weekend at Eihei-ji, a very large men's monastery of about 180 monks. Eventhough we were lodged in the guest house and ate our meals in a guest dining room, we had the privilege of spending two hours in conversation with two roshis (teachers) who, through an interpreter, were so open and willing to answer our many questions.
I could list many reasons why I am grateful to have made the trip to Japan but probably the most important one is what I learned about my own Benedictine monastic tradition.