Soon it will be May 24th. This special day is held with great reverence by the Buddhist community as it is Buddha’s birthday. To coincide with this I am taking a nostalgic look at my own life as a zen monk in a zen temple in Fukui prefecture through the few videos that I made there.

Tangen Harada Roshi is without doubt the most remarkable man I have ever had the good fortune to encounter, I was ordained by him and allowed to train under him for more than a decade. Every month on the 18th known as “O-Kannon-sama day” he would give a dharma talk in the Kannon-do, where about 40 locals from the village would gather and hear him speak on the Buddha’s teaching.

Life in a zen temple revolved around following a regular routine that involved rising early in the morning, in spring and autumn at 3.50am in order to be in the zendo by 4am. There were never any weekends, however there would be a day known as “Shikunichi” (a day that had either a 4 or a 9 in it), this occurred every five days. On this day there would be the usual zazen practice and chanting but no samu work periods, instead we were allowed to have a communal bath, the water was warmed by a wood-stove. Before the bath we would gather in the hondo (main hall) for tea ceremony and a dharma talk by Roshisama.

During each day there would be two periods of chanting in the hondo, the morning chants known as “choka” and the afternoon as “banka”. The strange thing was that after about three months in the temple one knew all the chants by heart even without making an effort to memorise them, this was due probably to hearing the same chants every day.

There was a large bell called a “bonsho” near the entrance gate to the temple, it was rung at regular times, four times a day, the first time at 4am, then 11am, then 5pm and finally at 9pm. A monk was assigned to ring the bonsho at those times and also chant. I remember doing the 11am bonsho every day for about three years.

During the zazen periods a monitor would walk around the zendo with a wooden stick made of cherry wood, it was his duty to strike anyone that was nodding off during zazen with the kyosaku stick. Two firm strikes to the right shoulder were applied to encourage the practitioner rather than punish him. The monitor would also hit with the kyosaku when the meditator requested it by placing his hands together in gassho.

The evening zazen period started at 6.20pm and ended at 8.45pm with the chanting of Shiguseiganmon,
a prayer was recited by the head monk after we chanted the four vows,  we would bow to him as we exited the zendo.

“All things pass swiftly please be vigilant – solve the life and death matter!
1- however innumerable beings vow to save them
2- however many delusions vow to clear them
3- however many teachings vow to master them
4- however long the Buddha road vow to follow”

Dharma talk by Tangen Roshi – translated into English:

Every year on the shortest day on December 21, we would celebrate the year with a party, the only occasion that we were allowed to drink alcohol and talk during the meal. Each of us would prepare a dish for the Toya party, the one I always made was fruit salad with yoghurt. Also during the dinner each of us would perform a song or read a poem. Here is a song that I played harmonica on, Roshi-sama seemed to enjoy the music as can be seen on the video:

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