A different kind of good


I expected Antaiji to be difficult. But I didn’t expect to be wanting to leave the place, every day, even 50 days after arriving.

I didn’t expect to have what was probably the most physically painful experience of my life inside the torture chamber that was my first sesshin. Several days in, as unbearable moment after moment passed, I found myself spontaneously visualizing standing up and walking to the door. It was all I could do to make myself stay on the cushion.

I didn’t expect to find it so meaningless to weed vegetables, rake grass, chop wood, dry herbs, peel fruit.

I didn’t think I quit my job so I could constantly fear being observed and corrected. Placing my chopsticks on top of my soup bowl in the correct manner, shutting the sliding doors completely, arranging my slippers just so, bowing in the right way at the right time. “At first, it’s terror, but eventually, you come to see the beauty in it,” said one resident when I arrived. Yes, but the fear has never left, and I’m unable to relax.

Why? Why am I here, using up some of my short time on this planet? I ask myself every day.

And yet, I stay, and stay, and stay. One more day at a time.

The answers have come unexpectedly.

Chatting with some new friends during a moment of depression after a one day sesshin, I felt uplifted.

Going for a run down the mountain on a free day, the soaring forest on either side, a pop song in my ears, I felt a quiet inner strength that wasn’t there before. A silent knowing, “I can withstand more than I could before.”

Somehow, the second sesshin, painful and unbearable like the first, didn’t overwhelm me in the same way. Instead of feeling run over by a truck at the end, it was more like, hey, did that just happen? Something terrifying had become less so.

On a trip into town on a free day, I lay down on the cushions in the comfy lounge of Hamasaka’s public hot spring and closed my eyes, not even caring about the blaring of the TV in the background. Separated at last from Antaiji, I remembered what it felt like to be free. Thirty minutes passed in a flash. On my way back up the mountain, the forest seemed strangely more magnificent and inspiring, and less threatening.

If it’s the rules, the work and the zazen that I complain about at Antaiji, deep down I suspect it’s the fact that these practices bring my attention back to myself again and again that rubs me raw. Antaiji is an up close and personal meeting with myself. And not the self that others see, but the sad, desperate, competitive, jealous, controlling self. The self who wants to be better than the others, or who is terrified at not being good enough. The self who feels that the cold is completely, hopelessly unbearable, that life is lonely and unfair. The self who wants desperately to get somewhere warmer, more comfortable, more free.

After my day at the hot spring and my climb back up the mountain, I arrived at the monastery, opened the kitchen door, and saw new friends Murilo and Willem bringing food out to the dinner table, and Jinen busy at the sinks. I felt a wave of affection. “Oh, there they are.” The steam rising from the pots, the carefully arranged food on the colourful little plates, and the bright lighting in the dining hall felt warmly familiar. I realized perhaps that a little love had grown in my heart for this strange, difficult place, despite it all.

If I make it through to the end of my stay, I expect to leave, and to feel good about finally leaving. And I expect to feel a different kind of good, for having stayed.