The Emptiness of Who We Are

by Gyōkei Yokoyama

Happy New Year.  2018 is the year of the Dog.  The year of the Dog is also known as the year of extinction.  Trees lose all the fruits and leaves and return to their original state.

In this article, I would like to share my experience at Eiheiji monastery and the insight that I gained which benefited my practice and life in general tremendously.

My first active involvement in Zen practice started in 1999 at Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan, where a German Jesuit Priest, Father Klaus Riesenhuber, was leading his Zen meditation group in the Catholic community.  I was 20 years old back then and was enchanted by the tranquility and discipline of Zen practice.  That literally transformed my campus life as Zen practice helped me stay focused on study and any other activities I was involved back then, although the lay practice that I enjoyed back then was empowering and grounding at the same time.

That year, I decided to go to Eiheiji to experience the true form of practice.  So in the fall of 1999, I started ango with 10 other fellow unsui.  Many young unsui come to Eiheiji with some confidence and self-esteem, thinking that they can make a difference, while others go there reluctantly to get a license.  I was one of the trainees full of aspiration and ambition seeking for an ideal practice. 

draw eiheiji 3However, although we knew how harsh the practice would be, we learned that the unsui who has just entered a monastery has no such thing as human rights.  I felt as if every second of life was controlled and monitored by the trainers and we didn’t have the freedom to choose even which way to look.

It didn’t matter where you came from or what positions you had.  I once saw a 61-year-old former chief commander of the Self Defense Force being treated like a child by a young priest who had graduated from high school.  Among the fellow trainees who joined Eiheij was Koetsu, who had a high position at Sojiji.  He left Sojiji to start training as unsui at Eiheiji from scratch.

It was a process of letting Eiheiji make difference in us rather than us making difference in Eiheiji.  After a couple of months, I found myself keeping up with the rhythm of Eiheiji despite the lack of sleep and nutrition.  Both my body and mind got used to the way of life at Eiheiji after a few months.  It was a beautiful experience to live at Eiheiji in the winter when the air was crispy cold and there were not too many visitors who would disturb the silence of the temple.  

But one morning, my knee stopped bending.  My whole leg was swollen and that day I was hospitalized.  It was an infection caused by beriberi from the lack of vitamin B because I was not taking a good care of the scar I made a few days before.  

I stayed in the hospital for a few weeks until my leg was healed.  During my stay at the hospital, I wiped the floor of the hospital every morning the same way I would at the temple.  But then, I found myself making a cross out of a chocolate box… something that reminded me of the Jesuit community where I felt comfortable and accepted.  I also started to fear that I would lose my ability to speak English since no English or even katakana was allowed in Eiheiji at the time.  The fear of losing what made me who I was gradually started to creep in.  Also, I was having a hard time accepting the drinking habits of the priests and oppressive and abusive nature of the temple culture.

draw eiheiji 2So, one morning, I had a chance to openly ask this question at shosan during the morning service.  My question was, “While Shakyamuni Buddha talks about the eightfold path, there seem to be lots of things in this temple that don’t seem to be in accordance with his teachings.”  “Why is it the case?”

After that day, I was labeled as a self-righteous and most egoistic man for questioning the establishment without thoroughly making an effort to understand the way of life at Eiheiji.  After this incident, one of the senior priests told me how ignorant and naive I was and encouraged me to consider my own motive to train in Zen and to start all over again in the real life outside in the world.

The practice at Eiheiji was beautiful but 20-year-old me wanted everything to be beautiful and ideal the way I wanted it to be.  The way my mind failed to digest everything else that comes with the practice including my weakness and that of others, the culture shared among Komazawa university students, or anything that I was not familiar and comfortable with left me depressed, overwhelmed and full of resentment against all the Soto priests and temples.

From 2001 to 2005, I left the priesthood and worked in Tokyo as a paralegal, company staff, and an English teacher.  During this period, I was certain that I was a perfect example of failure and suffered depression that lingered for years.

Japan was going through an economic recession and working conditions at the time were terrible.  It was then that I started to realize that the ango training at Eiheji actually had given me something indestructible inside.    I realized that the ango training that I experienced stripped me of my self-esteem, a sense of entitlement, everything I identified myself with… English, Catholicism, intelligence, creativity and even aspiration.  

draw eiheiji 1I now understand that Zen training is not hard because it comes with lack of sleep, pains in the legs or intense relationship with others.  My experience taught me that Zen training is hard when you are afraid of losing the “armor” of confidence that is based on what you have, including your positions, family, possessions or any belief or philosophy.  

During the ango training, I struggled mostly with my ego that kept falling down onto the bottom of the valley as it kept losing its grip on all the branches of its “self-identity.”   It was the experience of my own fabricated ego falling right onto the ground and shattering into smithereens.  As many say, the real practice starts after this “ego” is shattered into pieces.   

For me, the ango training revealed and magnified my attachment to what made me who I was and helped me realize how I was always holding onto my conceptualized self-image, the ideal and decorated self… The resentment, hatred, and agony that I experienced were attributed to my delusive image of myself and others.

Today, I find myself well protected by this “armor” again: jobs, family, bank account, the title of minister, and positions in Soto Zen organizations, etc.  Quite honestly, I can feel my strong attachment to some of these things… especially my 5-year-old son.  But at least, I know that I cannot depend on this armor.  

My personal conclusion of one of the many purposes of ango training is to see the emptiness of who we are and develop our appreciation for everything that just happens to makes us who we are at this moment.

Gyōkei Yokoyama

gyokei bw

Gyōkei completed his training at Eiheiji, one of the head temples of Sōtō Zen, in 2000 before graduating from Sophia University in Tokyo, where he majored in intercultural communication and was involved in the interfaith community. He worked as a paralegal translator for a few years in Tokyo. While serving as a priest in his hometown, he taught English to children from kindergarten to high school level. He also worked for a Japanese Brazilian and Peruvian community during the recession in 2008 and advocated for the city program for their children with linguistic challenges as a city councilor. He was a vice bishop of Iwoji temple from 2006 to 2011 and a bishop from 2011 to 2013. Currently he is assigned to work for the Long Beach Buddhist Church as a minister and the Sōtō Zen North America Office as the secretary.