There is a saying in Japanese: “Ichigatsu ha iku, Nigatsu ha nigeru, Sangatsu ha saru”, literally January walks, February flees, March leaves. Each of the months passes away, but February seems to be in a special hurry. All of a sudden already two months of the new year have passed.
Today we did the monthly big temple cleaning. Tomorrow will be the free day before the 5-day-sesshin. And after the sesshin the residents will have another ten days or so to write their final report of the winter study period. On March 26th we will accept newcomers, and work outside will start again. At this time of the year will still have masses of snow, but most of it should have melted until then.
Those of you who have followed the homepage for some while might have noticed that rules concerning newcomers changed about two years ago. Until then we would accept anyone coming at any time for any period of time. Now we are looking for people who are willing to stay for three years, are able to communicate in Japanese and are between 18 and 40 years of age. Some of the reasons are explained on the Staying at Antaiji page. It should be obvious that a place like Antaiji needs a crew of long term residents who can communicate with each other to survive (and not only do they have to communicate with each other, but alsoanswer phone calls, talk to visitors or Japanese nurses when they need to go to the hospital, and bureaucrats when extending their visa etc).
A view days ago I got specific question about the age requirement. Here is my answer:
“About the age minimum:
With people under the age of 18, I sometimes make exceptions. We probably get a newcomer at age 16 this spring. But as persons at this age are not “grown up” legally and often in reality as well, I need to make sure it is their decision (and not their parents), and that they can pull through with it. On the other hand, I am also putting myself and the monastery in a dangerous situation when I accept runaways who might be willing to stay here, but without the knowledge or consent of their parents (all of this happened in the past). So 18 seems to be a reasonable minimum age to me, although starting with Zen practice earlier can only be recommended (I started with 16, but I was no way prepared for something like the life at Antaiji at the time).
Now about the maximum age:
First, life at Antaiji is physically demanding. Cutting trees, carrying the logs, chopping the wood, building stone walls and leveling the soil for new rice fields, constructing a barn, harvesting a ton of rice with nothing but a sickle in your hands, or walking four kilometers down the hill and then up again with snow shoes through two or three meter deep snow to fetch the mail in winter – these are only some of the tasks at Antaiji.
The schedule starts at 3:45am and ends at 20:00pm. After that, you have free time for your personal studies. It is hard for young and old people as well, but from my experience young people find it easier to adapt, and at age 46, I realize that even for me, who has been living here for more than 20 years now, it is getting difficult to follow the schedule.
Many Westerners who come here speak only a limited amount of Japanese. It is not easy it start learning a foreign language that is so radically different from Western languages after the age of 20, but if you are over 40, you would have to be a genius to pick it up here. As said, the only time to study would be between 20:00pm and 3:45 am, and although I have seen young people cut down their sleeping time to study, older people usually decide they need the rest to recover.
For many Japanese on the other hand, life in a monastery is becoming a kind of alternative retirement plan. Some of them hope to be taken care of here. During my first ten years as an abbot I was sometimes the youngest resident here. My first three students were all well above my age. I changed the rules to the present ones because I realized that Antaiji is a place for young, motivated people. I could take care of maybe one or two old guys if I had for or five young guys, but what should I do when the old ones are the majority? This seems to be a problem that monasteries in the West are facing as well (and society as a whole in some countries), and I have heard about monasteries where the age limit for entry is 35. Even though they have no hard physical work in these places, they simply need a majority of young people to keep life going.
Antaiji is cut off from the outside world for 4 months each year, and when people need to see a doctor they have to make the 4 kilometer snow shoe walk or I have to call a helicopter (this has also happened). Young people usually recover quicker with less reliance on professional help than older people.
When old people come to Antaiji, they find it often more difficult to integrate into the hierarchical system. They might think that their “life experience” entitles them to privileges we are not able to provide to them. I.e. they tend to hope to be excused from things like hard work, listening to others (especially then those are younger and “less experienced” then them), and are often unwilling to stretch themselves beyond their self set limits etc. There are notable exceptions, and there are young people with similar issues, but the tendency can not be denied. People of the older generation often like to put all the stress on the younger ones:
“My Japanese might be not so good, but rather than have me study a foreign language in my old days, why do the Japanese not pick up more English in high school?”
“They are still young, why can’t they carry that log for me?”
“You are only twenty something and are telling me to do the dishes?”
So anyway, we have been making exceptions in the past and I have people over my age here right now as well, but I am more careful right now with excepting people beyond 40 now. I would have to meet them in person and have a certain feeling that they not only need our help, but can actually join in “rowing the boat” for a stretch of three years or more. Ideally I hope for people to stay a decade or so, and than to start their own place (or take over Antaiji), but you have to be young for that as well.”
In the videos below you see us during the farewell party for Werner, Ayako and Sabine who had been filming a documentary here. You might see that we have a number of not so young residents here as well: