Why did the older monks reconcile with Miyaura after they left the monastery?

Muho: You asked me if Miyaura was insecure and maybe he was. The guys that left felt betrayed by their teacher. They didn’t get appreciation for the work they did. But also Miyaura felt betrayed by them leaving and this insecurity got bigger. Usually, it was the first monk that left. But when time passes and there’s letters exchanged and new year’s cards exchanged, Miyaura would understand that that person didn’t betray him.

With oldest of the monks, it was a little different. He had done Rinzai practice before he came to Antaiji. He had some kind of experience during koan practice and thought he was enlightened already. That was important to him and he thought it was an important part of the practice. At one point, you should get this enlightenment experience.

Miyaura was pretty conservative – Uchiyama style. Sit for nothing; you don’t need any experience. Nothing for yourself.

But the oldest monk would kind of brainwash the other monks. He was also the guy who sent me to a Rinzai monastery. He’d say that there was nothing wrong with Antaiji practice if you are enlightened already but if you don’t have an enlightenment experience and just sit there for 1800 hours a year, it’s a waste of time. You need to get to that point where you jump into abyss. And at Antaiji now, there’s no one that pushes you to that point.

This was the reason why J., one of the other monks left. He went to Bukkokuji, which is another Soto place that does koans. T. went to a temple in Hiroshima called Shorinkutsu. This was all quite untypical for the Japanese. In my view, it was usually the foreigners that have this fixed idea: I need satori. The Japanese are usually a little bit more flexible there but both J. and T., after seven years at Antaiji, maybe came to that point where they thought they needed satori after all.

Edward: What did the oldest monk do afterwards?

Muho: He took responsibility for his own temple.

Edward: When did you leave?

Muho: In the autumn of 1995. That was two years after I joined Antaiji for good.

Edward: After you ordained?

Muho: Yes. Before I ordained, as an exchange student in Kyoto (between 1990 and 1993), I visited a lot of temples – some were Rinzai – and met some roshis, just to get an overview. I had an idea of the options and what I was committing to.

Somehow, in my mind, I knew I wanted to go to Antaiji but still wanted to know what other options there were. At the time, I thought Antaiji was the best. But, after two years, I was a little bit stuck. I didn’t get anywhere. I wasn’t happy in the sangha, the whole senpai-kouhai system. The insufficiency of the samu. The fact that so many monks sleep during zazen, when it’s supposed to be the core of the practice.

After two years, I was first thinking of going to another Soto Zen temple. There was also a German Zen monk who was living in Shizuoka and I thought of living with him. He was like a hermit in the mountains. But when I talked to the oldest monk about it he was like, oh no, just go to a Rinzai place. So I went to Kyoto from 1995 until 1996. Then from 1996 to 1997 I went to Hosshinji to get my priest licence. The oldest monk and J. also went there before me. Then from 1997 until 2001, I stayed again in Antaiji.

Those last four years, when I came back from Hosshinji, S. – another of my seniors – seemed destined to become the next abbot. But then all this pressure came with the no-takuhatsu thing. S. was the one who had the idea to have 10 cows then do the charcoal.

Edward: You said the reason you left was because of issues with the hierarchy?

Muho: Well, basically it’s because I thought I had no freedom here at Antaiji. Yes, I’ve got these two hours in the morning of zazen and two hours in the evening. I came to Antaiji because of that and have no problems with it. But then the whole of the rest of the day, I am ordered around by people and do tenzo, which I hated. After I was tenzo, I would hate to then have to do work which was so inefficient – and which I couldn’t say anything about or suggest a better way.

You’re criticised for your cooking, when you’re not used to Japanese cuisine and have no idea about what a proper dashi tastes like, or how hard or soft an udon should be. I didn’t go to Japan to learn how to cook, I wanted to learn about zazen and how to live my life. The quality of the udon in my mind was only secondary. But for the Japanese, it was always very important.

Edward: So it was just the chaos of the place at the time combined with a strict hierarchy?

Muho: It was chaotic but about the same as now. If you ask monks about the practice, what they usually tell you is that in the past, it was so much harder and stricter. People have been telling that story for centuries.

When you are there in the beginning, that is when it’s most intense. Later, when you look back on it, you think that the past was when it was hardest. But probably it’s more or less the same, over the years. So the amount of chaos, instability and inefficiency, I don’t think it has changed so much.