Could you speak about Hosshinji and why you went there?

Muho: In the past, they did koan practice with the specific aim to attain kensho. Even though it’s in the Soto-shu. When I went there, there was still some of the older students who did that koan training but the roshi didn’t enforce it anymore. There were these dokusan meetings, so you could meet with the roshi but not this, hey do you have the answer to the question I gave you yesterday. Which you have in Rinzai – also in Bukkokuji, where J. went. That and Hosshinji are in the same town, only five minutes away from each other.

They stem back from the same roshi, even though they don’t like each other anymore. Bukkokuji is pretty close to Rinzai even though it’s Soto. Hosshinji is now more traditional Soto.

Edward: During that time did you return to Antaiji?

Muho: I was in touch. I went back to Antaiji once when I got a small holiday from Tofukuji, the Rinzai monastery, a week or so. After I left Tofukuji, I came here for a short period of time. It was when they were building this zendo. At Hosshinji, I didn’t get any holiday.

Edward: What made you want to return to Antaiji?

Muho: When I left for Tofukuji, I wasn’t sure whether I would return at all. The only thing I knew was that things were not working out. I didn’t feel like going back to Germany or returning to university. So when the oldest monk said, why don’t you try Rinzai for a year, I said ok.

That one year at Tofukuji was an eye-opener. After that, I felt that my place is Antaiji and my teacher is Miyaura. If I ever wanted to get dharma transmission, I would get it from him. Although the Rinzai roshi loved me. He was a nice guy, like a grandfather.

Edward: You said it was an eye-opener. What do you mean?

Muho: I realised all the stuff I had been complaining about here in Antaiji wasn’t worth complaining about.

In Tofukuji, you get up before 3am. Then you do sutra chanting from 3am-4am. Then breakfast at 4.30am. Then there’s zazen and the first dokusan meeting with the roshi. You do zazen until the sun rises, in the winter it’s longer than the summer. After sunrise, you clean the whole temple precincts. That can take two hours, because it’s huge.

Then you do takuhatsu until 10am. Then it’s lunch. After lunch, the newest monks do toilet cleaning, while the older monks can take a nap. From 1am there is samu or, if the roshi has guests, you have to cater for them. Dinner is around 4.30pm and then around 5pm, there is zazen again until 9pm.

Officially, at 9pm, you lie down and sleep but that is only a show. You lie down for a minute or two, then get out of the futon. You take your cushion and then sit outside under the hondo roof facing the garden until 10pm. Then the oldest monk leaves. Then, every five minutes, the next in the hierarchy can leave. In my time, there was around 11 monks, so it took one hour until I could go to bed – so 11pm. That means you only have four hours to sleep.

Also, you have to memorise the sutras for chanting. In the first few months. The sutra-chanting is done in a ridiculously fast way – like a machine gun. It sounds like gurgling. So you try to imitate these sounds. And they say, hey you’re not chanting fast enough. They are also quite free-wheeling with slapping you in the face. Or sometimes they will punch you, if you get the chanting wrong. Basically, you have to stay up after 11pm and use a flashlight to memorise the sutras. But if you only have four hours to sleep, even if you stay up until midnight, the next morning it’s all gone. Your brain doesn’t absorb anything in that situation.

For any mistake, if your slippers are not straight by a millimetre, you get punched for that. Also, you can’t go to the toilet without permission. And if things are busy, or your senpai is in a bad mood, he says no. Then you have to eat this ridiculous amount of stuff. These three bowls filled with rice and three bowls of soup. The lowest one in the hierarchy has to eat all the leftover rice, and the second lowest has to drink all the leftover soup. In the beginning, I had to eat all the rice, which was a lot. And in the summer, I drank all the soup. I was lucky it was that way round. If it’s the opposite, you have to eat all this rice in the heat and drink all this liquid when it’s cold.

When you have to eat all the left-overs, you have to go to the toilet quite frequently and sooner or later you’d get diarrhoea. Each time you have to ask your senpai for permission. If you’re not allowed to go to the toilet, you have no choice but to shit in your pants. But then it’s not, “oh please go take a shower and change your clothes!”. You have to somehow escape behind the hondo and dispose your pants and wash yourself at night in the pond. Ofuro is only every two weeks. And ofuro for the monks at the bottom of the ladder means you have to wash the backs of your senpai. They enter the ofuro for 10 to 15 minutes, they finish, look at their watch and say, oh there’s no more time, get out. So you don’t even have your ofuro.

This means that when you go for takuhatsu, and it’s the rush hour, you enter a train and it’s normally like a sardine can. But because we were stinking so much, we would enter a train and have more than enough space to stand.

Edward: Like a blast radius?

Muho: Exactly. We didn’t notice it any more. You’re always in this stink. I only have respect for the roshi meeting us during dokusan.

Then in zazen you are always sleeping because you’re so tired. Everything is so surreal that you pass out the minute the bell strikes. But there’s always one person patrolling with a stick. And when you sleep, you get hammered on. Usually, it’s four strikes in the summer, and eight in the winter. Half on each shoulder. People take pride in how many of these sticks they can break. In sesshin, it could be five or six sticks they break.

For the people that get beaten it means that after a while, the shoulders swell up and the skin breaks and you start to bleed. When you bleed, it means they don’t hit you on the shoulders anymore, they hit you in the belly. You sit facing the room and the guy is hitting you in the belly like he’s playing baseball.

At first, I thought this can’t be real. It was like some crazy movie. But after six months, I was still alive – surprised but happy to be alive. It was an experience that was completely new to me because I was always a melancholic depressive when I was young. I was like, why did my mother have me? How much less suffering would it have been if she had aborted me when I was born?

After six months at that place, I realised it is actually a miracle that I am still alive. Wow it is great; there’s the sun out there and I can breath. I have to ask my senpai each day if I can take a pee but, at the end of the day, I can even take a pee here. Isn’t that wonderful?

Then, when I thought back about my life at Antaiji I was like, wow. I had this kind of first class experience there at Antaiji and I was complaining that I didn’t have enough time for myself. I had eight hours at night to sleep and I was complaining. I could decide whether I had enough rice and soup to eat. I didn’t get force-fed till I shit my pants, and beaten up for making mistakes. And, in the winter, I got three months to study what I wanted. Wow.

I felt a little bit ashamed that I had left Antaiji. Maybe I gave my teacher the feeling that I betrayed him. I thought, I have to repay something there, I want to get back. So for me, it was pretty clear that I had to return. But I need to also invest one year to get my Soto licence, so I’m going to do that right after Tofukuji.

I went back in 1997 with S. but then again it wasn’t easy. There was the money-making scheme. During the first two years, everybody except three people – including S., M. and K. – were left. And I don’t know, maybe it was the confrontations with Watanabe but Miyaura was drinking quite a lot. Not only after zazen but in the daytime, sitting in his room drinking.

If you had a question for him during the day, say after lunch, he was already intoxicated. You wouldn’t really want to talk to him. But there were few people to do all the work, so it was really hard. When the whole conflict with Watanabe got to the surface, and it was obvious something was going on, that he wanted Miyaura to leave and that I was a card played in that game – Miyaura told me that Watanabe had said I was going to be his successor and how come he didn’t know about that, which of course I didn’t know about either – there was this deep insecurity. He thought I had betrayed him with Watanabe, so then I said, I’m going to leave. That was in 2001. I had that conversation with him in January.

There was only two other people practicing there, K. and M.. So I said I will leave in the summer and I hope there will be somebody until then. There was then this American guy that joined and Miyaura seemed to love him.