There are old fables of exhausted men climbing tall mountains to find a wise Buddhist monk meditating on the very top. The monk then, in very few words, discloses to the weary traveler the secret to success, love, life, or whatever grand question is presented. In these fables, the monks are men of endless wisdom, gained through a lifetime of inner peace and solitude, while the pilgrims are tortured souls, worn out from years of toiling away in office cubicles with minimal PTO.
“We are going to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains!” announced Victor while planning our trip to Japan.
“I don’t know if I have the PTO…” I grumbled.
And after all, what questions did I have to beg from the monks? And what answers would I get?
Turns out, we didn’t even have to climb a mountain. We got on a train in Osaka and arrived at the base of the mountain Koyasan. There, we switched to a cablecar that took us to the top of the mountain and from there to a bus that brought us to the monastery. In the end, it was a thoroughly exhausting journey by modern standards.
The monks were just like we’ve seen in other Asian countries – shaven bold, wrapped in orange robes, wearing sandals with quiet expressions on their faces. Except they were vacuuming, cooking, cleaning, washing dishes, serving food, and slightly bowing towards us every time we ran into one in a corridor. This temple, like many located in popular pilgrimage destinations, offered temple lodgings to visiting pilgrims and tourists in exchange for cold hard cash.
“This is the weirdest Airbnb ever,” I told Victor, as we waited to be checked in by a monk, who sitting crossed-legged was the very picture of wisdom and serenity, except for an 80s style calculator in his lap.
I didn’t have any grand questions about life or love weighing down on me, but I did inquire about the free dinner and breakfast and what time the morning prayer chants started.
According to their website, we would be living the simple, traditional lifestyle of Buddhist monks. Once I saw our lodgings - a private, large room with tatami floors, sliding doors, gorgeous views from an enclosed terrace with a floor to ceiling windows… I really doubted the boy vacuuming the neighboring room was sleeping in this kind of luxury.
We walked around the temple, its wide halls covered in dark wood with exquisite carvings with occasional cabinet altars. Outside, beyond the pristine gardens where every leaf had its exact place, a curving path led through the woods, into a mossy cemetery. It was a place made for meditation and relaxation. Unless, of course, you were a monk with a full day of chores.
In the middle of the cemetery, we found one monk, a young teenager, sitting crossed in front of a bonfire, a large stack of firewood at his side. He was staring into the fire, contemplatively.
“His job is to keep the fire alive. He will sit here all day long, feeding it wood and meditating,” whispered Victor, who clearly read the temple brochure. The young monk glanced sideways at us and we immediately got quiet and started backing away. He sighed and stared back into the fire, seemingly not too happy to be left alone again.
It was almost dinner time and we rushed back to our room and changed into provided robes. We sat on the floor cushions taking selfies until another young monk delivered trays full of tiny plates. He didn't speak English to explain the menu, so I didn't know what to expect for dinner. In fact, I still didn't know what to expect even when directly looking at the meal, because I couldn't identify most of the ingredients. But we were hungry and dug right in. It was all vegetarian and everything was absolutely delicious. After some googling, I found out that some of it might have been tofu skin and freeze-dried tofu or something called “devils tongue jelly”. There was one small plate with a tiny slice of what might have been a vegetable, and tasting it immediately reminded me of something I ate in my childhood. For the life of me, I couldn’t place the taste or the smell and spent the next hour staring at the ceiling, rethinking my entire life in an attempt to identify what I had just eaten. Now that I think about it, this entire episode can be easily explained by a rogue hallucinogenic mushroom masquerading as food.
We spent the late evening strolling through the dark cemetery in the woods, and at 6 am the next morning were fighting sleep in a cold large room where morning prayer chats were taking place. We were all sitting on the floor, bleary-eyed tourists mixed with monks, listening to the rhythmic chants punctuated by the ringing of small metal gongs. I tried to meditate, but my mind wondered. Is it really possible to achieve any practical wisdom from a life of solitude, separation, and looking inward? The most valuable lessons I’ve learned about myself and life, in general, came as a result of interacting with the world, not from shutting it out. Is it possible to apply principles learned in a temple to everyday life? Buddhism teaches that one must forsake earthly attachments to people and things. That’s easy enough to do inside the temple, where all your physical needs are already taken care of and no one of the opposite sex is to be found. Can this really be done in Western society, where each person is valued for their contributions, their successes, their accumulation of people and things?
I thought about the boy monk by the fire. He has never been outside his country, probably not even outside his prefecture. To him, tourists from other countries are probably fascinating, full of knowledge and experiences he will never possess. To us, he is the wise man on top of the mountain, holding secrets to life and happiness that we are eager to learn. And here we were, tourists and monks intermingled, sitting on the same floor, chanting the same prayers, shivering in the same chilly morning air, seeking out different wisdoms.
In the end, the only piece of Buddhist wisdom I received on the mountain is this sign mounted in our room. It either teaches us to accept the inevitable or is simply mistranslated.
I, for one, came down from that mountain just as unenlightened as I went up, except for the newfound knowledge that vegetarian food can be delicious. Coming up – I fall in love with Japanese food and into despair with Japanese desserts.