by Stefan Chiarantano, Oct 24, 2006 | Destinations: Japan

It was a cloudy morning when I set out to visit Zuigakuin on Mt Takigo in Hatsukari. I'm now staying in Uenohara which is perched on a mountain. The JR station is located in the valley below on the other side of the Chuo expressway. I walked to the station below. Along the way birds of prey were circling above the mountain tops. There were very few people about. I passed a young girl walking her dog and a father pushing his child in a stroller. The ramps that connect the city to the JR station below provide wonderful vantage points to take in the surrounding scenery and beauty of the mountains. I stopped now and then to take in the greenery. The leaves were a deep green and some were turning colour.

Hatsukari is about 30 minutes away on the Chuo line from Uenohara. I'm visiting Zuigakuin, a Zen temple and retreat house. I haven't called ahead to announce my arrival nor do I have a map as to how to get there from Hatsukari JR station. All I know is that the temple is about a hour and a half walk on foot from the station. I soon discovered that Zuikaguin is perched on top of Mt. Takigo, 700 meters above the JR station.

The JR attendant gave me my starting point and told me to ask someone when I got to that point for directions. Then, a Japanese couple approached asking if they could be of some assistance. They were very kind and drove me to this point. They asked if I was planning to stay there. "No, I'm just visiting." I said. From there, I inquired at a garage and was told to follow the road beside it. So, I did and walked on. It was so quiet and the air was crisp and fresh. I could hear the gushing of water from the river running beside the road. I was sweating profusely. Sweat was dripping my forehead and flies hovered around my head. I could distinguish different birds sounds coming from the neighbouring woods. I was feeling a little nervous. Perhaps, I thought I should have called ahead. I continued on with my doubts. When the road forked up ahead, I was lucky to come upon an elderly Japanese woman who gently pointed the road to follow.

When I came to a marker which read Zuigakuin 2 kilometers ahead, I thought great. Then I came upon another marker which read Zuigakuin 1 kilometer ahead. I thought I'm nearly there. Along the way, I passed a small Shinto Shrine. Its Torii was fashioned out of logs of wood.

When I reached the two tall marble gate posts, one on either side of the road, to the entrance of the temple, I was excited. When I neared the temple which I could see through the woods, I heard the sound of a car approaching and pulled over to the side to let the car past. The driver stopped and rolled down the passenger window. It was Moriyama Roshi, the Zen master. By this time, I was sweating profusely and out of breath. I said, "Hello. I'm visiting the Zen temple but don't have an appointment. I hope it's okay." He got out of the car and introduced himself. He got back in and then asked if I wanted a ride up. My aching feet told me to say yes, so I did.

He escorted me inside and told me to take a rest inside a lovely tatami room which overlooked the surrounding nature. On the walls of the tatami room hung photographs of Moriyama Roshi, his disciples, and students. There was a shelf with literature, some of his books, and Zen material. He asked me how much time I had and I said "a little" since I didn't want to intrude on his daily routine.

We spoke in English which was a relief since my Japanese is very poor.

He gave me a tour of the center. We first visited the Zendo, the meditation hall which was very spacious and airy. The high ceilings gave it a majestic feel. Blue cushions were laid out on elevated wooden benches running along the walls. It was divided into two sections, one for lay practitioners and one for monks and nuns to sit zasen. A beautiful carved clapper in the shape of a fish hung from the ceiling. At the entrance to the Zendo was a drum, and a very small kane hanging from the ceiling. A statue of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom was centered in the section reserved for monks and nuns. Then, we visited the Hondo where Buddhist chanting takes places. It's a spacious room with tatami flooring. There's an altar with a statue of Buddha flanked on both sides with statues of Bodhisattvas. The chants are taken from the Zoto Zen Sutras by Kokuzozan Daimanji. The three jewels, Buddha, Darma, and Sangha, are chanted three times. Here's an excerpt from one of the chants:

Makahannya Haramitta Shingyo
Avalokitsvara Bodhisattva, doing deep prajna paramita
clearly saw the emptiness of all the five 0 conditions
Thus completely relieving misfortune and pain
O Shariputtra form is no other than emptiness, emptiness no other than form;

After that, we visited the living quarters and the kitchen. The Hondo, living quarters, and kitchen are fashioned out of a 200-year-old farmhouse that he has lovingly restored. The house is without electricity. Water is drawn from a neighbouring stream and filtered. Water for bathing is heated in a steel drum. Gas burners are used to cook simple, vegetarian fare. He served me green tea.

The center welcomes novices, lay practitioners, and guests who want to get away from it all and experience communal living in a Zen environment.

Moriyama-san's lineage goes back to Dogen, the founder of Zen Buddhism in Japan. Moriyama-san spent 6 years in Brazil. Dogen found enlightenment in China and brought back his knowledge, the transmission of light, to Japan over 700 years ago during the Kamakura period.

Before leaving, I paid another visit to the Hondo to leave a donation to show my appreciation and for being graciously welcomed without an appointment. I left with the knowledge that I had come across an enlighted being, an arhot, whose presence I won't forget.

The descent to the station was invigorating and the quiet filled me with a sense of peace. As I was getting closer to the JR station, I encountered two groups of hikers whose loud animated conversations jolted me back to reality.

The JR attendant asked me if I made it okay, I replied "Daijobu des", which means okay. He smiled. While I waited for the train to arrive, I contemplated the beauty of Zen.

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