Temple life: My experience living in a Buddhist temple for a month

The only light in the cramped room crackles from Fudō Myō-ō’s ferocious flame. I kneel in seiza and gaze into the agitated wisps. We’re chanting in unison, over and over again as Utsumi tosses prayer sticks into the void.

“Nômaku sanmanda bazaradan senda makaroshada sowataya un tarata kanman.”
"Homage to the all-pervading Vajras! O Violent One of great wrath! Destroy!"

I'm attending an Esoteric Tendai Buddhist ritual at Ritsu-in—a goma ceremony. I wrote my lofty wishes onto chopstick-sized prayer sticks and the living Buddha, Utsumi, tosses them into the toasty void. The fierce flames not only scorch the sticks but also negativity, cleansing your psyche and spirit.

I tried showing Utsumi, the living Buddha himself, where I live with my hand. Oh, Michigan.

For one month, I lived at Saikyo-ji temple in Otsu, Japan.

I stayed at Saikyo-ji temple as a religion and arts student. I traveled with a group of seven students from Michigan State University.

Cloudy mist rolls down from Mt. Hiei and into the Saikyo-ji temple complex.

So I'm from Michigan. And in Michigan, it starts getting bright around six o'clock in the morning during summer. In Japan, the sun is up by four. By six, it's so bright you'd think you slept 'til noon. It's good the sun was up so early because we needed to be lined up and ready for prayer at 6:30 AM. 

My hands clasped together, I silently shuffled between my classmates towards the Hondō—the main hall in the temple complex. Photography was forbidden there, which disappointed me. Because of that rule, however, I bore every last detail in that room into my mind's canvas.

A wooden walkway from our living quarters brings us to the Hondō.

Incense fills the room. I meekly sit on the red velvety carpet, resolved to sit still—braving the searing pain of seiza—throughout otsutome, daily prayer. At Saikyo-ji the brown-robed monks chant from the Heart and Lotus Sutra. I listened; my eyes wandered. Amida-Buddha rests in the center of the room, coated in lustrous gold. He almost bumps his head on the ceiling. Miniature Buddhas appear to hover around his silhouette; gilded, gold lotuses spring up beside him; offerings of sugar waits before him. Wooden carvings of monks encircle the room and scrolls written in exquisite calligraphy drape from the ceiling.

We practiced zazen meditation here with Toyama-san, a young monk. I had a tiny crush on Toyama-san (what can I say, he ran everywhere with so much energy and whenever you talked to him, he burst out into a smile like a thousand suns exploding) so I wanted to do it perfectly. I folded my legs uncomfortably atop a black, round zafu cushion and tried to focus on ignoring everything—my scattered thoughts, the sparrows chirping, the sound of Toyama-san's meter stick (gently) hitting my classmates' backs.

He only hit people who were unfocused or fidgeting. I didn't get hit.

We lived like monks.

Our room. The bedding is stored in the cabinets. No boys allowed (temple rule).

Unlimited barley tea, generously brewed by the monks.

Not exactly a relaxing shower environment, but it gets the job done.

 Sometimes we'd have visitors.

Colorful slippers were brought out for children visiting the temple on a class trip.

A nun (right) shows my classmate Emma and I how to properly make matcha.

Imai-sensei, (right, in olive blazer) regales us with stories. Born in China in 1926, Imai-sensei served in World War II for China. He was later recruited as a translator—fluent in Japanese, Chinese, and English—in the governor's office when Michigan and Japan were establishing a sister city relationship, the oldest of its type in the United States.

What did we eat?

Breakfast and dinner were always at the temple. Without fail, a serving of tofu rested on our breakfast platter. Because I eat everything, hate food waste, and didn't want to disrespect the cooks, I ate more than my serving of tofu. I earned the nickname, "Breakfast Jesus."

A typical breakfast. Clockwise from top-left: tofu, salad, sausage, egg, miso, seaweed, pickled plum, yogurt, and rice.

A typical dinner. I loved the tempura and dipping sauce! Apparently lotus flowers are eaten as tempura.

You couldn't get me to eat your serving of pickled plum or nattō though.

For lunch, we picnicked. Japanese grocery stores like Heiwado and AEON have plenty of amazing bread options—peanut butter bread was my favorite. The melon bread was delicious, too.

The nickname "Breakfast Jesus" carries heavy responsibility. Despite my banana being squished, I still ate it.

If you've read my other posts, you know I'm vegan. I made an exception for Japan. Our meals were cooked for us by nuns and I was a guest in this temple and country. There was no way I was going to demand for them to make me special meals—especially when neither of us spoke the same language—or have food go to waste. To show respect, I ate the food they gave me.

What else did we do?

You'd think college kids might want to stay up late and do something wild. Maybe if we weren't so exhausted from walking all around Lake Biwa, we might have stayed up super late. Like past 9:30 PM. Sjoquist-sensei, our professor, read us Japanese ghost stories in the graveyard. While Shinto shrines shy away from the "impurities" of death, Buddhist temples embrace it. Many Buddhist temples have graveyards within the complex.

I ain't afraid of no yūrei! (a.k.a., ghost.)

Every day was a new adventure—Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines are a short train ride and walk away in Otsu. Walking to the train station took about half an hour. Here's what we'd typically see on our walk:

The path leading into the main temple complex is lined with the monks' homes.

Farmers hard at work planting rice.

Even the locals are inspired by the beauty here.

Students walking to class.

Making the haul back to the temple with our groceries.

Let's take a ride on the train...

Some trains featured art from anime. One was modeled after Thomas the Train—the stops were even called out in a special voice-over.

Being an American in Japan makes you noticeable. More than noticeable. Fellow train riders would discreetly tilt their phones in our direction, sending us sideways grins and glances. People would give us gifts. A pair of Chinese women gave us candy at Oumi-Jingu. At Takebe-Taisha Jinja, a monk gave us all protective charms. A woman on the train gave me her pen. (A good pen too, with purple ink.)

The schoolkids gave us the most attention, though.

My riding style and calm demeanor earned me another nickname, "Jōdo train." I shall lead you to salvation!

We explored a new temple in Otsu daily. We even climbed down a mountain. (Yeah, we took the cable car up.) We visited Kyoto a couple times and after the class ended, my classmates and I stayed in Osaka for a few days. The week following, I worked on an organic farm.

Alas, these are stories for another day.

Would I do it again?

I would be honored to stay at Saikyo-ji again. I wouldn't mind seeing what Toyama-san is up to. (wink, wink.) (Kidding.)

And at the end of the day, I'd love to zonk out on that crunchy buckwheat pillow.


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