Since completing Gyoin I have been asked a number of times, to write something about my experiences, the training, and to shed some light on the mystery surrounding the training centre. This has developed into the suggestion that I write a book about the experience in order to give people here in the West, a glimpse of a world very rarely seen even by the Japanese themselves. I have decided that I will undertake this endeavour even if simply to record for myself, the experiences and trials faced. I do not know how long this will take, or if I will attempt to publish it. Nevertheless, for those interested it may prove a useful resource.
For the time being, I would like to give a brief preview of this hidden world, and to share with you all the Gyoin experience. But I would like to begin by pointing out that Gyoin is an incredibly personal experience of one’s own limitations, our expectations, and a fire-like cultivation of one’s inner potential. This means that everyone who completes Gyoin comes out of it with differing experiences, and that no explanation of the events can fully prepare one for their own personal Gyo (ascetic cultivation). This is compounded by the fact that the instructors at Gyoin change, and so too does the nature of the Gyoin they conduct.
With this is mind, I would like to start with the caveat that I am no expert on the Gyoin programme, nor do I know how well my experiences reflect the experiences of many of my fellow Tendai Monks and Nuns. I write this largely to habituate my mind, and to once more remind myself of the constant need to ‘re-enter the fire’ as it were, each and every day. If it is of interest to others, or in any way helpful or inspiring, I thank you for reading and invite you to undertake your own personal forging, in whatever form it may take.
The severity and strictness of Gyoin is legendary, its reputation unsurpassed. Among the many schools of Japanese Buddhism, Gyoin is largely recognised as one of the most thorough and rigourous of all training centres in Japan. It is however, necessary and required for all who wish to enter the Tendai Monkhood in Japan.
First, one needs to understand what Gyoin is, and is not. It is not a University in which one studies Buddhism as an academic discipline, although study is an element. Nor is it simply a practical training centre. While both of these are certainly substantial elements of the training involved, Gyoin is first and foremost, a centre designed to immerse you completely in the practice of Buddhism, and to provide you with the opportunity to face your inner demons, pitfalls and so forth. This is what makes Gyoin extremely personal, and accounts for the large variety of experiences. In other words, what happens on the inside, is infinitely more important than what is going on outside.
The first day of Gyoin is a snapshot of what will follow for the next sixty-three days. I had arrived in Japan a few days before, and made my way up Mt Hiei with little more than rumours and stories to prepare me for the ardour ahead. In fact these rumours and stories had all but convinced me that my imminent failure, and walk down the mountain lay ahead (a term for failing the course). Although I have a reasonable command of Japanese, and a rudimentary grasp of classical Chinese, I knew that the material we would be using was difficult even for Japanese Gyoin students, and so I had little doubt that I would have an uphill battle to fight. The strictness and austerity of Gyoin are legendary, and only added to my hesitation. My aim was merely to give it my best shot, in the hope that this might make show my Master how grateful I am for everything he has taught and done for me.
As we all began to assemble before the gates of the Gyoin compound, we cautiously looked back and forth at all the other nervous faces that would surround us for the next two months. Soon a teacher arrived, and without a word removed the wooden barrier that gates the complex. He then stared at us for a few moments before barking at us to hurry inside and line up. We formed a line and one by one were asked to shout our Master’s Temple and our own name when it was our turn. For most of us this was followed by another bark from the teachers telling us to say it louder. Afterwards we were told to run up to our dorm rooms which we would share 5/6 to a room. We quickly placed our belongings in a small cupboard provided before we heard another bark telling us to copy the instructions from the board immediately. As we all rushed to the stairwell, we found the blackboard covered in important information regarding the liturgical service for the coming evening, and basic instructions about how we were to order and conduct ourselves. I struggled to write as quickly as my Japanese compatriots before another order came to change into our formal robes and to assemble downstairs for evening prayers and services. The service was followed by dinner and some more information from our instructors. We hurried upstairs and copied out the notes we had missed from the blackboard using each other’s notes to fill in the blanks. We were soon off to sleep, all of us wondering what we had gotten ourselves into.
On the third day, we undertook a pilgrimage of sorts, to the three temple precincts on the mountain. This would be one of the only times we were allowed to leave the confines of Gyoin for the remainder of our stay. The trek is long and arduous with everyone keeping a brisk pace. We walked the route famously trekked by the Marathon Monks of Mt Hiei, with instructors who were now veterans of the course. Many sections of the route are little more than ledges above precipitous drops and mountain gorges. Somehow it seemed that it was these most hazardous of sections in particular, that our instructors tackled most effortlessly and with surprising pace. The pace was quick and constant, and nothing and no one would get in the way of this military-like rhythm. Some of our more elderly or larger classmates struggled to keep pace, and we learnt very quickly that we would have to look out for each other, if any of us wanted to make it through. I will remember chanting Fudo Myo O’s Mantra with one classmate as he struggled up the mountain forever. We took turns pushing and pulling each other up and down the mountain peaks and valleys. For one individual the strain proved all too much, and although he would remain at Gyoin for a few weeks more, he never quite recovered from the experience under the strain of our schedule.
Having paid our respects to the temples on the mountain, and more importantly to the mountain itself, we entered a training schedule that would continue largely unchanged for the remainder of the first month. The training at Gyoin is divided into two periods. The first month is designed to teach a Monk or Nun about the basic realities of running a temple, how to perform the liturgy and various ceremonies for the laity. Each day was divided into classes in which the ceremonies and liturgies were explained, and sessions in the Main Hall where these ceremonies would be practiced again and again. During the lessons, the Masters would often speak from memory, and their command of the material and services was impressive to say the least. They would speak from start to end with little or no pause, during which we had to take as many notes as possible. It was simply not possible to remember everything otherwise. Often we would compare notes in the evenings after lights out, to check what we had missed. At Gyoin, things are only explained once, and we had to absorb the information immediately and thoroughly. Anything else would bring us the wrath of the instructors or hold up the process for our classmates. It is important to remember that this continued day in and day out, with the ceremonies and liturgies becoming more and more complex as the days went by. There was little time to review, and it was often necessary to do so after lights out which cut into our sleep time considerably.
During this time, we also received lessons in Buddhist history, and thought. In these lessons as well, the wealth of material soon piled up, and it was necessary to digest the most important parts of the information if we were going to bring it all together in such a short time. If you didn’t understand some element of Buddhist Philosophy, you needed to clarify it before the next morning came, or else you would fall behind under the sheer weight of the material. Most of this time was spent sitting in the traditional Seiza posture. Although many of us were well practiced in this method, nothing could have prepared us for the reality of sitting in this posture for hours on end with little to no break between each sitting. It is important to keep in mind that there is very little privacy in the Monastery, and as days turned into weeks, into a month, our exhaustion and mental fatigue were hard to keep under control. With no space to ourselves, nor any time to recover we reached whatever physical limits we had, and greatly surpassed them. It is hard to say what kept us going. The thought of those back home supporting us, or our Teachers kindness to us in the past, certainly helped. For me, it was remembering that I was not going through Gyoin for myself, but for others, that kept me going. At the bottom of the Dormitory stairs at Gyoin, there is a large wall length mirror, with the words “Forget oneself; benefit others” written on it. These are the words of our school’s founder, Dengyo Daishi. Every morning and every evening we saw these words and our own faces reflected back at us.
We often think of our own spiritual journeys as being in some sense for the sake of others, but what is important is to put that motivation at the very beginning. I am not practicing to better myself, I am practicing to be a better example for others. I am not seeking enlightenment so that I can be free of suffering, but so that there is a Buddha for all those who need one. I am not going through Gyoin so I can become a more qualified Monk, I am going through Gyoin so that I am capable of carrying immense burdens (the pain of others) even during times of discomfort and stress (personal struggles or issues). Gyoin creates these types of Monks and Nuns. People who have surpassed any limit they thought they had, both mentally and physically. And in doing so, these people are genuinely able to lead their religious communities no matter their own personal struggles or trials.
Each day during this first month was capped with an hour long morning and Evening service in which we chanted the various liturgical patterns we learned. Nights were also closed with either a lengthy recitation of a chapter of The Lotus Sutra, or intense bouts of Shikan Meditation in the darkened Main Hall. Both of these activities were immensely illuminating, and were the closest thing one got to ‘time to oneself’. Chanting a chapter of The Lotus Sutra with all your classmates as the pain in your legs began to rise, as your body felt like it would drop at the next breath, or sitting motionless in the Main Hall meditating, with nothing but the flicker of a candle on the main shrine, and the sound of a sudden ‘CRACK’ when the teacher hit someone’s back with the Keisaku. These were the opportunities to ‘see ourselves’ clearly if only for a brief moment.
Gyoin is not perfect, and it is possible for some individuals to get through the rigours of Gyoin without taking to heart the great lessons it offers in humility and forbearance. However, the severity of the training itself, acts as a deterrent to all those who may intend to use a position of clerical power for means any less noble than its intended purpose. It also ensures that Monks and Nuns as advice-givers, bring to the table a genuine understanding of what it means to bear with great suffering, and to persevere when there is nothing in you except the will that says ‘hold on’. The exhaustion and severity meant that we were able to see ourselves, our heart and mind, without all of the things that we habitually impose or bring to the picture. We simply didn’t have the energy to make excuses for this or that, or to convince ourselves that we were anything but what we were. This sort of experience is essential to the ‘spiritual life’, and no genuine self-cultivation is possible without this type of total deconstruction. In short, we were returned to something like the point of ‘zero’ ready to rebuild ourselves on a more solid and wise foundation.
At the end of the first month, we would have to pass through another rite of passage known as the ‘3000 Buddha Prostrations’. This practice includes making 3000 full prostrations to all the Buddha’s of the past, present, and future, in which the five points (forehead, forearms and knees) must all touch the ground on each and every one. Even for the fittest of applicants this is a daunting task. For three days in a row, we performed 1000 prostrations a day, along with our regular daily activities. Each and every one was monitored and if it was felt that you did not complete one satisfactorily, you would be made to complete it again under the instructor’s watchful eye. After the first 500 or so we began to feel the burn, keeping in mind that we were already exhausted from the strain of the first month, and daunted by the coming month. By the time we had finished the first days 1000 however, we felt like we were well on our way to completing the whole practice. The next morning was a different story, our bodies were heavy and our muscles burned with every movement. By the time we had completed the second day’s 1000, many had split knees, or wounds on their elbows, not to mention torn muscles and tattered robes (from stepping on the hem). The third day called for all of our strength and resolve, but we felt imbued with a second wind. It was incredibly inspiring to watch as many of our instructors conducted the prostrations with us. Two instructors never missed a single one, and completed the 3000 with us, in no less pain or exhaustion. Although Gyoin was tough, we saw the calibre of men and women it created with every step that we took.
The second month of Gyoin is completely different. We entered the Esoteric training or Mikkyo and all academic study and classes ceased. Our sleep time decreased yet again as we awoke at 2am every morning, and proceeded to disrobe and purify ourselves with buckets of ice cold water. We would then walk through the dark mountain forest to a well to fetch spring water to use as an offering for the daily practices. These Esoteric Rites are secret to all but the initiated and must be passed from Teacher to disciple like water from a jug to a glass. In Japanese this process is referred to as mind-to-mind transmission or Isshin Denshin. These Rites are very personal and should not be performed by those not ready to engage in them. This spiritual maturity is a matter for one’s Master to decide, and is the beginning of a very intimate shift in one’s practice. In essence these practices aim at creating a radical non-duality, between oneself and the Buddha, between oneself and all other beings, between oneself and no-self, between animate and inanimate, between nothing and everything, all differentiations disappear, there is nothing to the left of ‘between’, nothing to the right of it, and so there is no ‘between’.
For those ready for such intensely personal practices it can be an immensely powerful experience, for those who are not, it can be quite dangerous. During these Rites we continued to deconstruct our self, but also began the work of understanding what needed to be put in its place, or more importantly if something should be put in its place. We performed these long and very complex esoteric rituals a number of times each day, as we fought to keep ourselves awake and focused. The Mikkyo practices are very profound and mysterious. Indeed, it is impossible for me now to look back on some of my experiences at Gyoin and explain them rationally. This would not be altogether surprising if it wasn’t for the fact that this is highly uncharacteristic of me. Nevertheless, It was all invaluable, and I don’t think I can ever forget Gyoin. I will carry the experience with me forever, and have no doubt that I am forever changed by it. I threw myself into the mountain, into its streams, its woods, its valleys and peaks. And it is my fervent hope that others do the same, and experience their own Gyo. We entered Gyoin as individuals, and left knowing that we were all part of something far more important. Namu Daisho Daihi Fudo Myo O. 南無大聖大悲不動明王。