According to many a spiritual guru nowadays, enlightenment can be reached in many ways—cleansing the mind and body of distractions and toxins… going all the way to coffee enemas. Who’d a thunk?
Could this be the fast track to spiritual bliss? If that’s the case, ‘bottoms’ up! Everlasting inner peace, here I come!
At least that’s what I thought last Thursday afternoon, but just as I was preparing to pour my Starbucks Americano deep into my butt, I received a message.
“Today, you are challenged by Tokyo Survival Channel to live as a monk in a mountain in Tokyo for 24 hours.”
Uhh… I thought, looking back at my coffee. Monk training? That might be more than I can handle! But if living and training and meditating with monks for 24 hours can put me on the expressway to enlightenment and becoming one with all the secrets of the universe…!
…Better order a Grande.
Finding a Shukobu
My knowledge of Buddhism in Japan was shamefully low. In brief, I assumed it involved meditation, a golden Buddha, and an association with Western hippies. Saying that I was really surprised that there were over 20 monk retreats to be found in and around Tokyo—each incredibly varied, but if I was going to be a monk I had to choose.
To start with, I needed a shukobu, a Buddhist temple lodging where visitors and pilgrims can stay overnight and also undergo spiritual training. They typically offer one of three types of meditations: takigyo (waterfall meditation), zazen (normal meditation while sitting on a pillow), and shakyo (basically a calligraphy lesson). All of them offer a menu of shojin ryori, a vegetarian Buddhist meal (a real challenge for my carnivore self), and a bed for the night.
Home, sweet enlightened home
For me, the choice was relatively easy. As an ex-history student and someone who wants to find the ‘authentic, rural Japan, and chase enlightenment at the same time, Fukuosan Shogakuji was the obvious choice. Over 600 years old, Fukuosan Shogakuji is a Zen temple which, among other things, offers meditation retreats to various martial art groups. It’s based deep inside the mountains in an outpost town near Chichibu, has English service and all you can drink barley tea. I mean, what more do you need?
What to pack
The only problem was that I didn’t know anything about monks or their lives. I mean, just what do you bring to a temple? Would it be inappropriate to bring my extensive comic book collection as I do on every holiday? What about less practical things, like clothes? Are they necessary?
Luckily, the temple e-mailed me a list of items that they gently recommend I bring:
- Loose, comfy clothes
- A towel
- A toothbrush
On top of that, though, I’d recommend pajamas and cash as well. Cash is an absolute necessity in rural Japan as many places don’t have a card reader… and this town doesn’t have an ATM. As for pajamas, I’ll just tell you this: my roommate saw my willy and it rather marred his experience.
Getting there was another worry, as anything outside Tokyo (to me) is a huge pain in the butt (and I was prepared to take a coffee enema). However, it’s actually pretty easy. Just train it down to Hanno Station then catch the 03-02 bus to Nago until it stops at the town called Nago. You’ll know you’re there because there’s a big sign with the word ‘Nago’ on it.
A heads up though, this is the kind of town where you’d expect to hear ominous animal sounds coming from behind dark corners. I’m not saying it’s overrun with lions, tigers, and bears (oh my), nor saying that anything is lurking in the woods, but if there were, I wouldn’t be surprised.
Anyways, when you get there, two thoughts come into mind.
- Wow, look at this beautiful garden / massive buddha statue.
- Please don’t let there be bears.
Let’s get down to business!
Bring on the monk training.
My path to enlightenment started the moment I set my foot on the temple’s tatami mat. It was surreal. In the entrance of the 600-year-old temple was a low table, surrounded by paper-thin walls, which stood like a pack of cards circumferencing a monk in a kimono. Wow, I thought, I can practically taste the enlightenment in the air.
On your marks, get set, spiritual awakening!
Standing behind the monk were three Westerners, including one sporting an “I love Tokyo” shirt. They turned to look at me. “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” one asked hopefully, to which I shook my head with a saddened, “No…” I’d never learned German. At this point, thankfully, the monk took over.
“First,” he said, “no phones, no smoking, no drinking. And no coffee.” Man, I thought, what about my enemas?
“Next,” he said, “can any of you speak Japanese?” It turns out that our host’s language ability was limited, but he tried.
He lucked out when one of the Westerners, who turned out to be Swiss, raised his hand. “Brilliant,” said the monk and got to work, explaining to us the intricacies of Zen Buddhism’s philosophy while the Swiss man translated.
It basically goes like this. Enlightenment comes via inner peace which you get through meditation. The plan is to sit in the exact same position as the Buddha did thousands of years ago, for however long you like. We started with an hour.
The catch is that inner peace isn’t reached through meditation alone. Rather, the whole point is to use meditation as a stepping stone to bring about mindfulness in your everyday actions, from eating to sitting to sleeping. I would be able to tell you more but at this point the lovely Swiss man who kindly offered to translate starting coughing, saying, “This is quite technical and my brain is melting,” so I missed out on the rest. It didn’t matter though, as within minutes we were being led to the temple.
The plan was simple: meditate, eat supper, get some enlightenment, and go to bed. The monk gently pushed us down onto the cushions, as the now extremely strained Swiss man explained the process, but as he was translating the monk banged the gong.
It was time to start. Sitting, we began our meditation.
High-intensity enlightenment training
So, this is inner peace, my newly-emerging enlightened self-told me as I sat listening to one of the Germans’ stomachs grumble from, by the sound of it, a viciously sour stomach. I was alright for the first 20 minutes or so, meditating in silence, but then I started having my own problems.
Believe it or not, this was the first time I had ever tried to meditate. So, whilst the man right next to me groaned as his stomach began to somersault and he tried to maintain composure, I was fighting the growing numbness in my legs and failing miserably. A creeping pins and needles sensation went down from my knee, heading towards my calf until it finally reached my foot… and I still had forty minutes left to sit there. I desperately didn’t want to disturb anyone but spent the last 40 minutes fidgeting and doing silent acrobatics, praying that the priest’s eyes were closed.
Dinner: Fuel for spiritual enlightenment
The dinner that followed was much better. Shojin ryori is of course vegetarian, which I’d usually be opposed to (I love my meat), but for the sake of reaching enlightenment, I made an exception. It was a series of dishes including rice, some pickled veggies, and deep-fried tofu.
There were a lot of rules and rituals around eating food. We were told to leave one pickled radish at the end. One of them was no talking. The other was no tea. The final one, though, was to use that leftover radish to wash the dishes clean; pouring a little water into one dish, then from that dish into another, all the while wiping away the food with the radish until all the bowls were spotless. Then, you drink the water and eat the radish. At least I could survive this part of monk training.
Next morning bright and early
I woke up the next day at 5.30 am with a quiet sense of determination. This was astonishing, as usually, I wake up with a sense of utter dread – especially since I started coffee enemas. I was enjoying the process. Maybe it was the meditation or the lack of sleep, but either way, I was keen to give it another crack and I didn’t have to wait long.
We were to meditate at 6 am and clean the temple before finally having breakfast.
It seemed my companions were beating me to the enlightenment finish line. As our next meditation began, my newfound friends’ consciousnesses ascended into the cosmos, while I was left twitching from below as my foot fell asleep yet again. For whatever reason, this morning… it was not meant to be.
Rather unsympathetically, though, the priest still made us clean up—no rest for these disciples! I drew the short straw and had to wipe the loos, entering breakfast with the trauma of toilet-scrubbing fresh on my mind.
End of a journey
And that was it. With a cramped leg, sore arm from cleaning the loo, and that quiet determination still with me, I left the temple a final time. Did I reach a level of consciousness that surpassed the physical world? No—this is meditation, not drugs. Did I learn the secrets of the universe? Also no.
However, I did have fun. And whilst I may not be a great monk, at the very least I can say I had a nice time. Maybe spiritual enlightenment is not something you can fast track. With a final goodbye and that moment when someone awkwardly asks for the bill, I left.
If monk training isn’t your thing, try enlightenment in small doses at the Vowz Bar!
Before I finished my trip, I made one last stop to a small bar named Vowz. My friend Lucas and I hit Shinjuku and walked the rest of the way there. We soon realized we could have taken the train to Yotsuya-Sanchome station (oops) but I considered this trial as another step in the enlightenment journey.
Vowz isn’t any old bar. It’s a monks’ bar, designed under the impression that “if people weren’t coming to the temple, then the temple would come to them.” To prove their commitment, there’s an actual temple inside. There are also actual monks, who pray at the end of the night and who provide mind-blowingly good cocktails for 800 yen.
I don’t know what it was. Maybe it was the meditation I had done, or the friendliness of the monks, or the good friend I had with me, or alcohol, but I felt at peace.
Who knows, maybe I had reached enlightenment after all.