Antaiji’s Identity Crisis



"Antaiji is not a school--it is an adult sangha!"

-Miyaura Shin'yu

It seems that whenever you try to nail down what kind of place Antaiji is, you get into trouble. Take for example the familiar, disgruntled tea-meeting refrain--born of a decade of wounds apparently inflicted by bleary-eyed, inconsiderate world travelers showing up on Antaiji's doorstep looking only for a free lunch and a dry place to sleep--"Antaiji is a zen training monastery, not a guesthouse!" But if Antaiji is your standard Soto-Zen training monastery, then where are all the monks? What's up with the drunken campfires, the decadent food, the conspicuously omitted layers of decorum and ceremony that make up the vast majority of a typical Japanese unsui's training? On the other hand, I don't know of any guesthouses mandating close to two-thousand hours a year of painful zazen or a daily regiment of frequently life-threatening samu.

It might then be tempting to label Antaiji as a kind of intentional community serving the needs of tough-minded, spiritually-saavy, hippie organic farmers yearning to live freely off the grid in communion with mother nature. But if that's what this place is, what about all these suspiciously on-the-grid aspects of our daily life--the electricity, the high-speed wifi, the packages brought regularly to our door? Not to mention the occasional toss of an old copy machine or broken printer over the backside of the mountain to join smashed brethren in their forest graveyard, smiling and shouting "All is One!" before heading back inside for a relaxing stretch in the electric massage chair...

But the deeper cause for dissonance with the "Antaiji as lifestyle" idea is that no one seems to stay for very long. A lifestyle is not a lifestyle unless it's for life, after all. Contrary to the early days of the Kutoyama Antaiji, when a handful of idealistic Japanese kids imagined staying up here as goal-less (and presumably celibate) monks more or less indefinitely, the past fifteen years or so have seen the rise of a global generation that can't stay in one place for more than than about two months. Hence the recent revision of Antaiji's official residency policy--everyone who comes here must be serious enough about zen practice to plan on staying three years. Although from certain perspectives three years is not really so long--(many zen temples in America require at least a five-year commitment to residential novice training from their monks, with around ten years being the minimum requirement for dharma transmission)--by recent Antaiji standards it is a significant achievement.

The Antaiji homepage gives a characteristically practical rationale for the change in policy-- one year to get the lay of the land and learn your specific job, two years to start to see how all the jobs fit together, and the third year to actually give something back to Antaiji by teaching others what you've learned. Starting to sound suspiciously like a school curriculum? Maybe that's not so bad after all--rational descriptions of landmarks in the learning process can be highly motivating (although, of course, no one will promise you enlightenment at Antaiji!). And there is now a group of us at Antaiji who have been here nearly the proscribed three years or even longer. This is a very good thing--without a stable sangha of long-term practitioners Antaiji has no hope of maturing as an institution. But the problem now for us is--what happens after our three-year graduation? As Docho-san has been ominously reminding us lately, three years spent at Antaiji has no inherent meaning in itself. In other words, as Dogen loved to repeat, you might think you're doing something significant when really you're just wasting your time.

This might have been part of what Miyaura Shin'yu was hinting at in his enigmatic statement that inspired this article--Antaiji is not a school, it is an adult sangha! In college, if you can just manage to get by with decent grades, there will be a degree waiting for you at the end despite all you may not have learned while you were busy partying with your frat buddies. Three years at Antaiji? No such reward. The structure of Antaiji also seems deliberately designed to be as un-school-like as possible, placing maximum responsibility on the "adults" who choose to come here. The way we sit zazen is a clear symbol of this--the abbot faces the wall with the rest of us, offering not a single word of teaching, counsel, or encouragement. It's up to us to provide ourselves with what we need, at our own risk or reward. Want to spend those sesshin hours working on your breath counting? Go right ahead! But watch out, 'cause you might just be wasting your time...

It's the same in many other facets of our daily life here. Miyaura was famously reticent when it came to giving even basic instruction about important tasks (he apparently loved to say "shiran" [something like, "I don't know, fuck off] to hapless unsui asking questions about rice cultivation), in order to empower people to figure things out on their own. While the current Docho is comparatively freer with instruction and advice, his leadership style is still generally quite hands-off. This is particularly true in the realm of interpersonal (or karmic, if you like) interaction among sangha members. I've seen people come to literally to blows here and inspire little more reaction from Docho-san than a shrug of his shoulders. After I questioned him about this lassis-faire approach, he told me: "What, you think just because this is a zen temple there's magically no violence here? Violence is a fact of life. We should address it when it needs to be addressed, of course, but we're deluding ourselves if we think we're immune to it because we're spiritual."

Practitioners at Antaiji are expected, on the whole, to handle interpersonal issues amongst themselves as adults rather than relying on a spiritual authority figure to settle things for them. This approach can seem quite far from what I'll call the "Karma Hospital" model of zen training, common in America and Europe, where the priest acts as a kind of hybrid spiritual advisor/psychotherapist, the daily schedule makes significant room for group emotional processing, and karma/relationship issues are painstakingly explored one-on-one in the dokusan room. Antaiji has no dokusan, official group communication is almost exclusively work-related, and the general culture around emotional processing might best be described as cold-bordering-on-callous indifference. I was shocked in my first months at Antaiji to hear Docho-san relate with characteristically unpretentious humor his experience giving dokusan as a guest teacher at a German zen center's sesshin --"I was like, what do you want me to tell you? I've got problems with my marriage too!" But despite this, it wouldn't be fair to paint a picture of Antaiji as completely devaluing karmic work. Long-term group practice (what Docho-san has frequently called the "rock-grinder" in his writing) is a core value here, and if sangha members stick together over the years, karmic (inclusive of psychological and interpersonal) issues will arise and demand to be dealt with as a matter of course.

So we've got a short list of labels that don't quite fit Antaiji: Traditional Zen Monastery, International Guesthouse, Intentional Farming Community, School, Karma Hospital. What about this "Adult Sangha" thing? When I first read that term by Miyaura, quoted out of context in an article by the current docho, I was intrigued and inspired by its possible implications. I imagined a tight-knit team of adult professionals who lived at Antaiji not to learn anything in particular, fulfill any set obligation, or get some certification they could use elsewhere; but rather, to hone their skills while helping to maintain an institution whose values accorded with their own and providing its benefits to others.

But here again we run into problems. There are several key aspects that make Antaiji much more like a school--a place designed for a finite period of training followed by a "graduation" of sorts--than Miyaura's utopian Adult Sangha. One of the most significant of these, I think, is the rule prohibiting romantic relationships. While for a minority of practitioners this might be no big deal over the long-term, for many it poses an insurmountable barrier to the Antaiji-as-a-lifestyle view.

Another is fact that the practitioners here, including the long-term residents, represent a broad range of age and experience in zen training. There is a clear hierarchy of rank defined largely by length of time spent at Antaiji, which can resemble the "freshman/sophomore/junior/senior" system used in most American high schools and universities. Still another school-like aspect is that the pressure put on the average resident here is high enough to be appropriate in the short term (say, ten or so years), but prohibitive in the long term.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing--there are some significant advantages to the School model over Adult Sangha. The most obvious is that if Antaiji is designed for a finite period of practice, the pressure on its residents can be higher. Practitioners can push themselves past internal boundaries that might seem insurmountable without a clear endpoint. This is similar to the approach used in military boot camps or Rinzai training monasteries, where the pressure is extremely high at the beginning and eases off significantly after a couple of years. (Although, let's face it, as hard as Antaiji's tenzo training and five-day sesshin can be, we can't compare to the positively medieval atmosphere in many Rinzai temples. Again, I'm certainly not saying that's a bad thing.)

I'm also not saying that we at Antaiji should make up our minds about what kind of place this is and stick to that decision. I would, in fact, caution against taking that stance. I believe that a large part of Antaiji's strength and potential as an institution comes from its resistance to being labeled as one thing or another. It's the same with us as human beings--in general, easier it is to nail down our personality structure, the more likely it is that we're neurotic. Psychological maturity can be measured in terms of how flexible we are internally. Mature people can adjust their approach to fit each situation, without feeling fearful or threatened. So maybe we shouldn't be afraid of Antaiji being all-of-the-above. I can see distinct advantages to each of the models we have looked at so far (yes, even International Guesthouse).

We've already discussed some of the advantages to the School and Adult Sangha models. Let's take a quick look at the others and what their advantages might be:

--Antaiji as a Straight-up Soto Zen Monastery--

Although on the surface it may be easy to see Antaiji as directly rebelling against much of what the Soto-Shu has to say about zen practice, with Uchiyama and Sawaki as the poster-children of its resistance, in fact we make use of many traditional forms and procedures. Without listing them, I'll just comment that their highest value is in helping to create an atmosphere conducive to zazen. Just because Antaiji as an institution places a higher value on hours-in-zazen than hours-in-ceremony doesn't mean we can't make use of forms. This is not some kind of compromise--forms, when used appropriately and not as ends-in-themselves, are a help, not a hinderance, to practice. Also, the fact that we do spend so much time in zazen--and have kept many forms that reinforce the monastic aspect of our identity--helps remind us that we are in fact engaged in spiritual practice, and not just running a farm.

--Antaiji as an Intentional Farming Community--

At the same time, we are just running a farm. And despite the fact that most of us came here with zero agricultural experience and more enthusiasm for zazen than plowing fields and planting rice, it is this tangible, often hard labor that sustains our life. From one perspective you could say that work is zazen; they are not two separate practices. If that's too vague, consider another advantage: the fact that our daily life requires a good amount of hard, manual labor gives us an antidote to the stagnant, prissy, pretentious, masturbatory, dirt-phobic virus that so often infects monastic communities of all traditions.

--Antaiji as a Karma Hospital--

As I hinted at above, the Karma Hospital label is a particularly tough sell for Antaiji. The Bodhisattva Precepts are barely discussed here, and practitioners are generally left on their own navigate the subtleties of their own psychological issues. Unless your behavior seriously pisses someone off, it generally goes unmentioned. But as I was trying to imply before, this attitude towards karma is in itself a deliberate technique which has some distinct advantages over the conventional American/European psychotherapeutically influenced approach. For one thing, karma work is a delicate process that requires a lifetime of work and subtle discernment. I don't think Antaiji denies this process; rather, it gives practitioners the space to work things out for themselves through trial-and-error without feeling constantly judged by a Big Brother type figure. The disadvantage is that the Antaiji method is less direct and can be slower than the Big Brother approach to karma, and depends on the practitioner committing to years of practice within the residential sangha. But if the commitment is solid, practitioners here can enjoy the invaluable freedom to make their own mistakes (often the same ones over and over) and to continually learn from them.

--Antaiji as an International Guesthouse--

And finally, the infamous Guesthouse model. When I arrived here in March of 2012, Antaiji was just rounding out about a decade without a stable sangha. The longest time spent in residence by a single practitioner without either leaving for good and/or suffering psychological breakdown was around two-and-a-half years. Those were the most senior practitioners (besides Docho-san), and there were only one or two of them here at a time. The rest of the population was a revolving door of guests, some of whom were apparently quite obnoxious, who would stay for a week or a month and go on their way. It must have been a huge strain on Docho-san and his small contingent of longer-term people to teach the same basic material over and over to people who had no serious intention of staying here. Not to mention the normal stresses of getting all the necessary work done.

I can't blame them for indulging in a little (or a lot of) resentment from time to time. Docho-san apparently even considered closing Antaiji's doors for good on several occasions. But things have changed a bit. For the past three years we've had a stable sangha of around ten people, including one practitioner in her fifth year and two going into their fourth. Everyone who becomes a long-term resident commits to staying at least three years. I want to be clear that I'm not making any grandiose or romantic claims about Antaiji's recent development as a sangha.

This is only the very beginning, and things are still quite fragile. The "stable" sangha we have could easily collapse and things could go back to the way they were before in a heartbeat. None of us here is a true senior, despite the fact that we take turns playing "first monk" and hold various responsibilities. True seniority takes years and years learning what it means to be a junior. None of us (again, besides Docho-san) have put in the time.

But you can't deny the change. And the advantages that come with it. Personally, I enjoy and benefit from a certain "guesthouse flavor" that visits Antaiji from time to time. Particularly in the Spring and Autumn, our population swells considerably with short-termers--"exceptions" to the three-year-rule. While this of course generates certain challenges that don't exist with a small group, I don't see it as a problem at all given the burgeoning stability of our sangha. The fact that ten of us plus Docho-san have a reasonably solid grasp of the way things work here means we can teach newcomers the Antaiji ropes in a relatively efficient and comfortable way. And more importantly, we can allow the newcomers to teach us. Many people, even if they stay only a short time, have an incredible amount to offer Antaiji, both with their unique skills and their unique personalities. Just freshening the air from time to time with a diverse influx of personality, age, experience, and nationality is hugely valuable for the long-term sangha. Of course it's an important part of practice for the same small group of people to get thoroughly sick of each other, but the occasional break from that kind of intensity is healthy for everyone. Short-term people allow us that, and we should be grateful to them for it!

I have also come to know a handful of "long-term short-termers"--devoted practitioners whose lives allow them to come to Antaiji every year for a month or two at a time. Again, the contribution of this cohort is unique and invaluable. Combined with a familiarity with Antaiji, they also in many cases have specific, professional skills they can employ with focus during their stays here. This is a level of specificity that the long-term sangha members cannot reach--because that's not our role. Our role is to understand the big picture of Antaiji, and help create an atmosphere for practice that allows everyone who comes here to make the most of their own unique potential. We are facilitators of practice--the caretakers of this place and its people--not specialists.

I firmly believe that we as a sangha have to grow out of any lingering resentment toward short-term people we may have inherited from a different era. Failure to do so poisons the water, so to speak, and undermines our chances of maturing together. As Docho-san eloquently commented to me once: "How can we justify doing takuhatsu every year if we're not willing to give ourselves, to share our practice with others?" Even if some people really do come here seeing this place as nothing more than a guesthouse, there's a chance their eyes will be open to something bigger as a result of their short time spent here. That's not for us as monks to know or judge--we should just continue to give unconditionally.

So have we solved Antaiji's identity crisis? I hope not. My wish for this place is that it remains difficult to define--that it can be many things to many people depending on their particular needs for growth. And if we as a sangha can create this mature Antaiji together, who knows? Maybe we'll grow to become true adults ourselves in the process, and make our ancestors proud.


Antaiji, 2014