Complete Awakening: Practicing at Sogenji by Soten

Sogenji was pretty good to me….

Every now and then we are granted the opportunity to go do something different. For the last three months, I was sent to Sogenji Monastery in Okayama, Japan, to study with Shodo Harada Roshi. Harada Roshi is abbot of Sogenji in Japan, as well as three other satellite temples in India, Germany and Washington State. He has affiliated sitting groups in more countries than I can count, and as teacher to Hogen and Chozen Roshi for more than two decades, is an honorary founder of Great Vow Zen Monastery.

Harada Roshi is a disciple of Yamada Mumon Roshi, who was the head of the Rinzai sect in Japan. He is of an increasingly rare breed of Japanese teachers who teaches Awakening as the primary purpose of an individual’s life and zazen as the primary means toward that Awakening.

Three years ago, Jogen spent three months at Sogenji. Last year, Kisei spent one month there, then I had my turn…

The Bodhisattva Vow takes many shapes. At Sogenji, it is fast-paced, filled with energy, taught with determination, yet casual and joyful. I spent a good portion of the last three months simultaneously homesick, well-cared for and profoundly grateful for both what I had the opportunity to do, and the way in which I was doing it.

I have learned a certain humbling lesson more than once:

My own efforts are the product of the efforts of others.

The love from my parents, the kinship with my brothers, the training at Great Vow, the precedents established by the seniors who have left Great Vow, the wisdom of my teachers, the encouragement of my Sangha, the feedback from my peers, the faith of my partner…

All these directly become Who I Am. So when the Roshi expressed gratitude for my “hardwork” during my stay at Sogenji, I felt gratitude for everything above, knowing that their efforts were NOT separate from my own.

What was it like?

Simpler food, less heat, less sleep than I am accustomed, and yet plenty of opportunity for naps (for those who take them), a short bike ride away from GREAT pizza and I could wear as many vests as I could fit under my robes (no way to avoid icy popsicle-mudra however).

We would SPRINT to sanzen (meditation interviews) 1 – 5 times a day, chant like we were full-force-vomiting out sound, and eat oryoki as if practicing for a tofurkey dog eating contest.

The grounds are beautiful. The sandy paths are “groomed” almost every morning. And the opportunity to practice Presence of Mind was unlike anything I’d experienced before. We had long/tiring work periods devoted to simple tasks like raking or stoking the fire for the bath; spacious afternoons off schedule during which I would often split my time between body practice and zazen.

Sesshin was about 14 hours of sitting practice a day. And the culture during Rohatsu is one that encourages practitioners to sit up all night, EVERY NIGHT!

I feel my time there really cleaned me up and cleaned me out. I got a full mind-body enema : )

What did I miss? Rather, what did I gain appreciation for at home?

The beauty and creativity of Great Vow stand out to me. The Life Energy that swells in the Jizo Garden, sourced in immense love-grief. The firework display of wildflowers behind the zendo—which somehow bloomed well before and beyond Spring this year. And the zendo itself—golden, humming, silent. I missed living where I want to pour my own Life Energy and I’m very glad to be back.

I was only at Sogenji three months, I don’t know a THING about the place. I’ve only been at Great Vow for seven years—I’m so new at this! Obviously there’s a time in life to focus/clarify one’s mind and heart, in order that they may be put to better use. When is it time to stop sharpening and put them to use? Probably if you think it’s sharp enough—you’re arrogant. And probably if you think it’s too dull—you’re a coward.

Some will tell you, “You have to AWAKEN before you can TRULY function.”

Others will tell you, “You can’t WAIT, Be completely Alive!”

Some will say, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha.”

And some will say, “Endlessly polish the clear mirror.”

Are any of these in conflict? Of course they are, in concept. But when we’re TRULY ALIVE, we’re truly alive! And what can be said about it?

So basically my Yelp review for Sogenji is Five Stars, I highly recommend it. Especially if you’re already there….

(Pictures of Harada Roshi and from Sogenji borrowed from their website)