I sit with crossed legs and heavy eyelids. I’m the last in a line of seven people, each of us waiting in silence outside of the dim meditation hall. It’s nearly midnight at this Zen Monastery, and many of us hope to stay awake until sunrise. For two nights and three days, forty of us will hold vigil to commemorate the Buddha’s enlightenment.
I’m one of a handful of lay people present. There are a dozen ordained monks that look cheerful even in somber black robes, probably because of the deep tracks of smile lines around their eyes. The rest are formal students, donned in muted grey kimonos.
A broad, bib-like piece of cloth hangs around the neck of some students. It’s a rakusu, showing that these students have taken the Zen precepts. On the neck of the rakusu, thin green thread stitches a trailing silhouette of mountains, signifying the Zen branch they study under: The Mountain and Rivers order.
In Japanese Buddhism, the precepts are Boddhisattva vows, the vows of someone who can attain enlightenment but chooses not to, instead committing themselves ease others’ suffering. They commit to not create evil, to practice good, and to do good for others.
I’m in loose pants and a sweatshirt, waiting in line outside of the zendo. With no one behind me to see it, I sneak a stretch and muffle a yawn. Then try to settle back into zazen posture: left hand resting on my right, thumbs touching lightly together. This symbolic hand position is called the “cosmic mudra.”
Slowly, the line shortens. One by one, people are standing, bowing, and stepping into a back room. When they return, they bow to the next person in queue, then return to their meditation cushion.
This is my first experience in a Zen monastery. Truthfully, I have no idea what to do. I watch and mimic others. They bow when they leave the zendo; this person holds their hands this way; that person sits in this different posture. Slowly, I accumulate the minutia of formalities. I tread quietly and carefully, hoping not to stumble into any egregious faux pas.
When the woman sitting in front of me returns from the back room, she bows to me. I rise and return the gesture, then head into the darkened room.
Pictures of the lineage’s teachers hang on the wall. The room is lit with candles and smells lightly of incense. A statuette of the Bodhisattva Jizo sits on the altar. Jizo is prolific throughout Japan; statues of smiling, innocent, almost cartoonish monks are in most every garden or tucked somewhere on every street.
Jizo is the Boddhisattva that accompanies others in suffering and death. In Japan, these smiling statues are often draped in red and pink baby clothes. Little boots and toys are spread around the feet of the standing monk. For the Japanese, Jizo is the sweet-natured guide of children who have passed away.
A grey-clad student bows to me as I enter. A traditional cast iron kettle, a nambu, sits steaming on a hotplate before her. She rinses a chawan, a tea bowl, with supreme gentleness. She then drops three scoops of fine, green matcha powder into the chawan. Pouring a small amount of water into the bowl, she whisks it rapidly. It froths and aerates. She raises it to her forehead, bowing once again before setting it in front of me.
I love matcha. I love matcha lattés. I love matcha candy. I love matcha ice cream. I think I know what it is, how it’ll taste, what to expect. But the three swallows of bubbly, aromatic tea is wholly different from any other tea in my life. It’s creamy, sweet, and bitter all at once. If it weren’t for the fact that I watched the whole process, I would’ve believed she snuck something else into the bowl.
Ambiance influences your receptivity to flavors. Japanese tea ceremonies, conducted with such intention, reverence, and mindfulness, turns what could be poured for you at a Starbucks drive-through into a kind of medicine.
I bow to her as I stand, and again as I step backwards through the door. Returning to my meditation cushion, or zafu, I shut my eyes and notice my body as it absorbed the caffeine-rich substance. I feel the rush of warmth and tingles spread through my throat and face. I sit, watching the sensations swirl through my stomach.
The buddha lit at the front of the zendo is the only light, reflecting steaks of gold onto the glossed wood floors. After an hour’s wait, I now have a small edge. An extra boost to help me stay awake as I try to meditate through the night.