So you want to practice in Japan? Part one million

Many people email and message me asking about practicing in Japan. So many people contact me on a weekly basis about this that I have written the following form letter.

The short answer is I do not recommend practicing in Japan. The longer answer is that people are illogical, and spiritual drive usually does not respond to logic. So some people will want to do this regardless of what I say. I know this because I was like that when I was younger.

It is important to understand that the places I trained in Japan—Toshoji and Aichi Senmon Nisodo—are not meditation centers. They are institutions called “senmon sodo,” like seminaries in America, which are designed to train clergy to take over leadership positions at temples. They do not emphasize meditation. Instead, they are designed to train monks and nuns to do the ceremonies needed to run a Japanese temple.

Both of the places I trained allowed lay people to stay there—anywhere from a day to several months, depending—but there is no standardized format for how a lay person participates, and acceptance into the temple may depend solely on who answers the phone that day. Lay people are not part of the organizational structure and are prohibited from engaging in most tasks, participating in priest training, and even sitting inside the zendo. Lay people are guests who sit at the bottom of the table and perform menial tasks such as kitchen and yard work. They are allowed to “participate” in ceremonies by watching. This may or may not appeal to you.

Many people who write me already have the contact information of the places they want to stay, and want me to help them secure a stay. Unfortunately I do not have the capacity to do this. If you have an American Zen teacher, they should arrange the stay for you. If you do not have a teacher, you need to be comfortable calling a number and talking to a Japanese person on the phone. This may mean studying Japanese intensely for several months, if not years. In fact, I do not recommend anyone practice in Japan without knowing Japanese.

There are many fine institutions in America that offer residential Zen practice. San Francisco Zen Center, Green Gulch Zen Farm, and Zen Mountain Monastery all have programs you can apply to that will enable you to live and work at the center for free or a small fee. Before committing to a stay in Japan, I recommend practicing at one of these places for at least a month, if not more.

If, after learning Japanese and practicing at an American monastery for a month you still have a desire to practice in a Japanese monastery, these places are a phone call away. All you have to do is call.

I do not mean to sound cold or callous, but no one will help you in Japan, not ultimately. There may be some kind and helpful people, but it will be up to you to make your experience meaningful. And, the best, best case scenario of practicing in Japan is that you will realize that, eventually you need to contend with your biological predisposition, your culture, your family, your existential ennui, and the realities of living in late stage capitalism. The best place to do that is right where you are, right now.


  1. Somehow it cracks me up to read this as I prepare to go practice in Japan. Of course my situation is, on the surface, a little different than most in that I'm a priest ordained by a Japanese teacher blah blah blah But honestly I'm quite sure that I'm as clueless and helpless as anyone else. Thanks for the uncomfortable laugh :)

  2. Great piece, Gesshin! Having taken about 10 trips to Asia for various Buddhist-y types of activities, I can certainly see the value in taking 'the plunge' of foregoing all of one's old habits and activities, fully turning oneself over to the life and process of monasticism or quasi-monasticism. But I would recommend your advice first to most people : do the work at/near home first, lots of work, and only then consider the big jump. There is still a tremendous amount of romanticism around the "real" Zen or "authentic" teachings in India/elsewhere as opposed to a "watered down" version in America. Phooey, I say.


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