The Life of the Temple

I’m flying to San Francisco tomorrow! I have been in Japan for only five days, and I’m off again. After the Hossenshiki in Switzerland I traveled to France to visit my friend Jokei-san’s temple. Jokei-san is a French nun in her fifties whom I met at Nisodo. She is incredibly energetic and positive, but tough and no-nonsense in the best possible way. At Nisodo when I would be having some personal problem and thought it was the most important thing in the world, she would glare at me and say, in a thick French accent, “We have a lot of work to do and you are still thinking about yourself.” 

Jokei-san lives alone in what looks like a converted farm house, an hour’s drive away from the nearest train station. The center is small and very French, with stone walls, a big vegetable garden, and these amazing red flowers that stand tall on long stalks, like sunflowers, but more bell-shaped. The zendo has wood floors, no tans, and there is bread at every meal. Jokei-san works hard and seems to always be moving. It’s a wonderful place. 

The first morning I arrived for zazen and was given a seat right by the door. After zazen there was a morning service all in French. I wasn’t exactly sure where to stand, so Jokei-san pointed out a spot separated from the lay people, with a bowing mat. I stood there and just followed along, bowing when I heard the bell, or sitting down when Jokei-san did. Every temple has its own unique schedule and rhythm, and the best way to act in a new environment like that is to just follow along with whatever everyone else is doing. After breakfast there was work period, and I was sent to the kitchen. I didn’t know where anything was so I just asked what I could do and chopped the vegetables people gave me.

At tea time, Jokei-san introduced me to the members of the temple. She said, “Gesshin-san and I haven’t seen each other in years, and even this morning we haven’t spoken a lot because we are working, but she understands very well about the life of the temple. We can work silently together because we both understand about temple life, and this is very touching to me, watching her.” 

This was an interesting thing to say. In actuality, Jokei-san and I are friends. We like each other’s personalities, we can chat for a long time, and we support each other, which is why I came to visit her. We have a good interpersonal relationship, but the way we connect ultimately is through a shared, impersonal experience. It’s the impersonal experience of being nuns together which makes our personal relationship thrive— however that’s possible. 

Learning how to act in a temple doesn’t happen through conscious effort. Of course there are actual details to think about, like what time things happen, how to hit certain instruments the right way, or what groceries to buy on a given budget. There are phone calls, bills, scheduling details, and depending on the place, textual studies or language studies. I studied tea ceremony at Nisodo, which required memorizing a lot of details. 

But really how to behave in a temple, the underlying attitude of it all— how to move, how to stand, sit and bow, how to work well with others, how to follow the schedule without complaining, how to keep your head about water in the midst of everything— this can’t be learned consciously. It happens gradually and subconsciously through years of repetition, years of showing up again and again to work and bow and sit, and above all, be quiet. And because it happens subconsciously, because it’s in many ways an impersonal experience, it isn’t something you can be aware of when it’s happening. It takes someone else on the outside pointing out, “Look, you are working well with others,” before you know that’s what’s happening. 

It took me a very long time to adjust to this kind of life. It was like being thrown into a river without knowing how to swim, and then floundering, drowning, until enough people showed me how to relax and float down stream. Harmonizing with temple life is a lot like learning how to float, instead of trying to swim upstream (or drown). It doesn’t happen naturally. Though there will always be rocks to avoid, it’s our job to relax into the river, to allow ourselves to be carried while also making the individual effort to stay afloat and avoid the rocks. 

The life of the temple has nothing to do with being a monk or a lay person, a man or a woman. It has nothing to do with age or intelligence. The life of the temple doesn't care about your personality, or harmful thought patterns. It’s a physical activity that is learned by watching and following. And then, when you find yourself doing it without effort, it’s not really yourself doing it, but something along the lines of… the life of the temple living itself.

So what good exactly is this shared, impersonal experience, this river floating, this life of the temple? What bearing does it have on the rest of the world? How can it help? I’m sure it has not made me a kinder or nicer person. I’m not more gentle. It hasn’t increased my communication skills. It has made me more patient only in the sense that I can endure more pain. It has made me “better” only at those relationships which exist within a clear hierarchy; I am “better” at respect but I’m pretty sure I’m “worse” now at love and intimacy. I’m harder and less affectionate. 

As I look forward to returning to America, I have to think this life of the temple is not enough. But I carry this life of the temple with me always, somewhere underneath everything, and it’s an incredibly subtle, precious thing. Insufficient, definitely, but precious.


  1. If you say you're not kinder and nicer, not as good at love and intimacy, I believe you. But some time back you mentioned a nun in her nineties who was very kind and sweet, and I assumed that sweetness came somehow out of the life she'd led. I've seen that kind of thing in other long-term practitioners. So I'm not sure it all has no effect.

    1. I certainly hope so! But sometimes I wonder if it's like what the religious scholar Reza Aslan said, "Islam doesn't promote violence or peace. Islam is just a religion, and like every religion in the world, it depends on what you bring to it. If you're a violent person, your Islam, your Judaism, your Christianity, your Hinduism is going to be violent. There are Buddhist -- marauding Buddhist monks in Myanmar slaughtering women and children. Does Buddhism promote violence? Of course not. People are violent or peaceful. And that depends on their politics, their social world, the way that they see their communities, the way they see themselves."

  2. You caught me totally by surprise:

    "It has made me more patient only in the sense that I can endure more pain. It has made me “better” only at those relationships which exist within a clear hierarchy; I am “better” at respect but I’m pretty sure I’m “worse” now at love and intimacy. I’m harder and less affectionate."

    Honesty is its own reward, so they say.

    I've always believed honesty and being a friend to someone were the most important things; I figured the rest was out of my control.

    I think I read your posts because of the passion you demonstrate in writing them.

    Seems like all you need to do is "mind the gap", and you'll land on your feet; get a tattoo, have a drink, do a little karioke. Ha ha!

  3. Hollyhocks, the flowers! (Not sure if you knew or not but id'ing plants is my obsession!)

  4. Perhaps I missed something--are you returning to America for a visit or permanently?

    I have been reading your blog for about 6 months. You pose questions that are important for those living in a temple, but also for those of us living outside the temple world. Your answers are sincere, interesting, fun, even inspiring. I thank you.

    For many years, I practiced as a layperson at a temple in Kyoto (a sub temple within Myoshinji). I have lived in the temple, but for most of the time, I lived in a small apt. a few minutes away. I've also studied Japanese. I now live in northern Kyoto prefecture, and sit and study Japanese informally. (i.e., on my own, not as much as I want/should!)
    I look forward to each installment of your blog. Again, thank you and best wishes in the U.S.


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