“Excuse me, wake up please.”
I checked my phone. The clock read 3:30 a.m.
Our informal wake-up call had come from a Buddhist monk who would soon walk us down to the Zendo for morning meditation.
I turned on the light above our futons, illuminating the tan straw tatami mats that covered the floor. Although the room, like most of the rooms in Eiheiji Temple, was small and simple—the epitome of minimalistic—somehow, it still managed to maintain a certain degree of elegance.
In front of the sliding shoji doors stood a small, carved mahogany wood table that came no higher than a foot off the ground. A fine porcelain teapot etched with tiny black and gold symbols sat alongside two delicate white teacups and served as the room’s only decorations.
I admired the set, which reminded me of the one I owned in my childhood, and of all of the imaginary tea parties I used to host for my loved ones using sugar water instead of tea.
On either side of the table lay two small square cushions called zabutons where we sat cross-legged the night before, enjoying our tea along with two thin, slightly burnt sugar cookies stamped with what looked like a snowflake and tasted like Christmas.
Before arriving in Japan—before we even bought our tickets—we had e-mailed Eiheiji Temple and inquired about spending a night.
Although there are over 18,000 temples in Japan, many of which are dedicated to Buddhism, what makes Eiheiji special is that it was built in the 13th century by a former ordained monk named Eihei Dogen. All those years ago, Dogen asked a question of his teachers in Kyoto, a question no one could seem to answer.
If we were all Buddhas, or “awakened ones,” already, Dogen inquired, then why did we have to work so hard to attain enlightenment? That is to say, why be a saint if I was never a sinner in the first place?
To find the answers, Dogen traveled to China where he lived for five years and received teachings. About to return to his home empty-handed, Dogen suddenly met a teacher who would change his life.
Using what he learned (the details of which are expertly and comically explained in any literature by author and Zen Buddhist monk, Brad Warren), Dogen traveled to Fukui, Japan and created Eiheiji, the “Temple of Eternal Peace.”
And so, in an effort to answer some of our own questions about spirituality, we sought out this serenely magical place tucked away in the picturesque mountains of Fukui, Japan.
Upon arriving, we were greeted by a young monk in training who had been assigned to help us and three other visiting foreigners navigate the temple. Thanks to one of our group members, a woman from Singapore who claimed she knew only “a little Japanese,” we were granted an in-house interpreter who graciously translated as the monk explained all of the rules one must follow while visiting the monastery.
The first rule stated that shoes were not allowed. We placed our sneakers in a small locker and were gifted brown leather slippers in return. The slippers had no backing and apparently the shoemaker had also neglected to make any attempt to distinguish between the left and right foot.
As I attempted to walk up the steep staircase that led to our room, I was reminded of how my kindergarten students must have felt on the days they attempted to assert their independence and hopelessly dressed themselves, only to trip over their feet once stepping out onto the playground.
According to Zen Buddhist customs, we were also not allowed to talk or even make sounds when eating our meals.
Nevertheless, it was imperative that we ate at the speed of the fastest eater at the table so as not to let anyone finish their meal first or last. Instead of eating my dinner slowly and mindfully, as I had expected to in the name of all things Zen, I spent the entire meal time looking around at the trays of my dining companions while hastily trying to stuff bits of rice and tofu into my mouth.
I finished my meal with a stomachache.
Yet another custom upon arriving at the temple was the act of bathing before dinner.
I silently questioned how this would work when we were escorted to the bathrooms. There were two doors. Behind each was a single room for men and one for women. There was also only one bathtub in each room, and we were all expected to bathe at the same time.
We then returned to our rooms, where I picked up my towel and walked back down the long dark corridors toward the women’s bathroom. When I entered, I noticed the other American woman had already started to undress.
At first, I waited behind the glass, trying to give her the space and privacy our Western culture taught us to allow one another in situations like these. Of course, practicing such courtesy was futile, as I would eventually have to bare all, but I couldn’t seem to overcome the initial feelings of shyness and discomfort that arose at the prospect of taking a bath with a complete stranger.
As she walked inside the bathroom and closed the door, I slowly started to undress and carefully placed my clothes in one of the wicker baskets, attempting to delay the inevitable. Walking to the door, I caught a glimpse of my body in the mirror and examined it for imperfections, as I tended to do when confronted with my naked self.
Much to my surprise, I didn’t find too much to complain about and pridefully acknowledged the fact that I must have gained a bit more confidence in my years traveling the world. I took a deep breath and walked in.
Immediately, I was confronted with another naked body, belonging to my new bathing companion—the American woman I had shyly greeted earlier.
My eyes quickly glanced over to the far corner of the room where she was sitting on a plastic white stool, holding the shower head in one hand and a bar of soap in the other, scrubbing her body clean before she entered the bathtub. I followed suit and sat down in the opposite corner, immediately feeling the strange discomfort that came from sitting naked on a plastic stool and bathing with a stranger.
But in the spirit of mindfulness, I tried to let go of these thoughts and instead focus on the feeling of soft, slippery soap and cool fresh water splashing off my skin and onto the blue tile floor.
With this, I began to calm down, and as I entered the bath, I was pleased to discover that it looked and felt more like an onsen (the natural hot springs Japan is famous for) rather than the bathtubs of my childhood. I sat there relishing the warm water for a few moments before the sound of O’s voice came reverberating off the thin plastered walls, marking an end to our “Zen bath time.”
Truthfully, I was grateful for the disruption, as it also marked an end to the awkward silence that had floated in the air between us. For the first time since entering the tub, we looked at each other and burst out laughing at my partners’ complete and utter disregard for the “silent bath time” rule.
And then we started telling each other a bit about our lives. She was a writer too (a journalist actually), working for National Geographic. I was so overcome with admiration and respect that I began asking her questions about her experiences and what it took to be a professional writer.
It wasn’t long before we were talking like two friends in a coffee shop instead of two naked strangers in a bathtub at a Japanese monastery.
Every time I encounter these uncomfortable scenarios, I’m reminded of the fact that I chose this life.
Like Dogen, I was deeply unsatisfied with the answers I had been given by teachers and so-called authority figures. And from that dissatisfaction spurred a yearning to know more, to chart my own path, and to search for the answers myself.
From the brief time I spent at the monastery, I began to get acquainted with many discomforts—some less subtle than others—and in doing so, I learned to become more comfortable with who I really was.
This is what I learned.
The things I see as challenges are only challenging because I perceive them as such.
Likewise, the fears I have about living outside of my comfort zone are nothing more than that—just fears I have yet to face.
In allowing myself to experience the unknown and to face my fears, I make way for a new kind of experience: the experience to know my true inner self, the one who does not worry when something or someone is different, but who embraces such differences for the opportunities and lessons they provide.