Life at a Zen Monastery

“Great is the matter of birth and death.  Impermanence surrounds us.  Do not waste your life!”

– Saying written on the front of some Zen monasteries

Om. Towards the end of my senior year in high school I began doing daily Zen Buddhist meditation to cope with an emotional crisis I was then going through.   I immediately discovered that it was a potent way to practically reduce stress and therapeutically heal myself.  This was the initial purpose I used it for, but then by the infinite grace of God I had a powerful awakening experience in meditation that completely revolutionized the way I think about God, spirituality, and life.  The rabbit hole had exponentially deepened, and what initially began as an idle curiosity mushroomed into a consuming desire to experience more of the Divine.

During the next year I began thinking seriously about living in a Zen monastery.  There were only a handful of major ones in America that I found on Google.  I eventually chose Great Vow Zen Monastery, located in the forested setting of Clatskanie Oregon (the trees!), because they had a summer program during July and August where residents could live for donation only (normally it is 500 dollars per month).  So at the end of my freshman year at OU I packed my bags, rented an anthology of Bach’s organ sonata’s for the road, and took a three-day journey to Oregon that would become a life changing spiritual adventure.

A Brief History of Great Vow Zen Monastery

Hogen and Chozen Bays, an American couple who have both been rigorously practicing Zen for over 40 years, founded Great Vow Zen Monastery in 2002. They both studied with Taizan Maezumi Roshi and later with Shodo Harada Roshi who are both are both Japanese Zen teachers.  Hogen also practiced early on with Philip Kapleau Roshi, the founder of the Rochester Zen Center and a pivotal figure in American Zen who wrote the classic book, The Three Pillars of Zen.  Both Hogen and Chozen had careers and families before founding the monastery and were trained in Zen initially as lay people.

Great Vow is essentially a product of Japanese Zen and creatively integrates both the Soto and Rinzai Zen schools.  The Soto school (founded by Ehei Dogen in the 1200s) is known for its emphasis on “just-sitting” and is generally less rigorous than the Rizal school that primarily utilizes koan practice to facilitate the enlightenment experience.  Both these schools, ending all the way with Chozen and Hogen and their immediate “dharma heirs,” trace their lineage back to the historical Buddha in an unbroken line of teachers.  And as the name suggests, the overarching motivation of the monastery is the “Great Vow” of Jizo Bodhisattva, a mythical Japanese saint who forgoes her own enlightenment to liberate all beings.

Being Zen Buddhist, the teachings there transcend any specific dogma or tradition.  And although there are many Japanese rituals at the monastery, its primary focus is meditation.  And since Zen meditation is essentially the practice of exploring the living reality your own experience and your own body/mind, people of all religions or of no religion can participate.  I met Christians, modern pagans, agnostics, Buddhists, and many other representatives of diverse faith traditions there.  I personally do not consider myself Zen Buddhist but utilize Zen as a practical technique that enables me to experience the Divine.  For although Zen has inevitable cultural influences it is simply a practical set of tools that catalyzes universal awakening.  Then, once you experience awakening for yourself you can call It Jesus, Allah, Krisha, Buddha Nature, or even Frank or Cindy for all I care!

Daily Life at Great Vow

I’ll never forget the first time I met Chozen Bays, the founding co-abbot of Great Vow, in the tea area.  In her non-chalant and gentle way she asked me about my life.  I then began boastfully listing off all the Zen books I had read so far and tried my best to impress her with my supreme knowledge of enlightenment.  She simply listened with ironic delight and then before walking off said, “That’s all nice, but the important thing is that you practice.”  My bubble of spiritual pride had been popped, but I knew intuitively that I had met a genuine teacher.

And practice I did!  The wake up bell sounds at 3:50 a.m. each day, followed 30 minutes later by a wooden block called “the Han” that is hit to call people to the meditation hall (the sound of the Han can only be described as brutal…).  Then there is 2 hours of meditation (with walking meditation in between 50 minute sitting periods), a chanting service, and a silent breakfast with delicious vegetarian cooking.  After this there is a 3 hour silent work period followed by lunch, a break, and then another 3 hour non-silent work period.  After this there is a break, then a silent dinner, then another break, and then 2 more hours of meditation before bed at around 9:30.

The work periods and eating periods are viewed as an extension of meditation.  Sometimes I was assigned to gardening, to working in maintenance, the kitchen, housekeeping, etc. Whatever I worked on was less important than my state of mind while working.  Just as in formal meditation, the work periods were an opportunity to practice mindfulness and inquiry into the One working.  Eating, as well, was viewed as a similar opportunity to practice the art of being constantly one with whatever is happening.

What I just described was the schedule for 4 days of the week three weeks of the month.  Sunday and Tuesday were later wake-up days, and Monday was an off day.  In addition to this, one week of each month is a “Sesshin,” or silent meditation retreat.  These retreats contain about 8-10 hours of seated meditation during the day with only one short work period, and the whole thing is in silence.  These retreats are invaluable to spiritual practice because the mind is stilled so continually that deeper and normally inaccessible layers of the mind emerge.  Furthermore, the daily confusion of human activities are temporarily renounced, allowing the practitioner to focus exclusively on spiritual practice.

For this reason I firmly believe that it is nearly impossible to unlock the spiritual potential of meditation retreats through other mediums.  I did 9 retreats at Great Vow, and can safely say they were the most challenging and most rewarding experiences of my life.  I always recommend to people who are serious about the spiritual path to attend at least one in their life.  The entire Earth has been discovered by explorers, but the insane depths of your own Divine nature can only be explored by you, and this is by far the most rewarding quest a human being can ever take.

The Wisdom of the Schedule

“Let us therefore labor to enter into rest….”  -Paul the Apostle

This schedule is very difficult but was actually quite wonderful when I completely surrendered to it.  Although it is undoubtedly hard, every part of the schedule exists for the sole purpose of catalyzing awakening.  Firstly, the fundamental purpose of a monastery (in any spiritual tradition) is to free the residents from the usual worldly cares that obstruct all of us from experiencing the Truth.  At Great Vow I did not have to worry about impressing the opposite sex, what I was going to eat, or wear, or do that day.  I did not have to spend any of my energy planning because everything was planned for me.  This allowed me to devote all my energy to my meditation, a rare and precious opportunity whose value can scarcely be put into words.

Monastic practice is not better, or more holy, than lay-practice; it is simply a unique set of conditions intelligently created to produce the experience of enlightenment. Things like prolonged silence and abstinence from entertainment are not ends in themselves but “Upaya,”a Buddhist word that means “skillfull means” to produce enlightenment. For just as we cannot see our reflection in a boiling pot of water, so it is hard to see the Truth if the mind is constantly consumed with conversation, entertainment, and mental activity.  These things are not renounced because such a renunciation is “holy” or because such things are “evil.” Rather, they are temporarily renounced to create a situation where it is easier to experience awakening.  The Buddha himself practiced solitary meditation for 6 years in the forest before he awakened, and all the great masters of any tradition followed a similar pattern. For the great irony of the spiritual path is that we must make intense efforts to realize what has always been true!

Secondly, the difficultly of the schedule purposefully creates tension that activates the ego.  It is one thing to talk about the eternal Buddha Mind, the emptiness of “self”, the Oneness of all things, etc. Yet it is entirely another thing to embody this while doing the compost on 5 hours of sleep, or with knee pain in meditation.  These difficult situations are purposely set up to challenge the sense of self.  The rigorous meditation combined with the intensity of the schedule creates a situation where one is forced to face their own discomfort.  Doing this continually eventually helps dissolve the ingrained idea that God (or Buddha) is something other than this very life, or that the Divine is some obscure bliss we will only taste after death.

A great Zen Koan illustrates this:  A student asked the master, “How can I escape the heat and the cold?”  The Master then said, “Let the heat kill you, let the cold kill you.”  In this koan the student had an idea that Buddha was somewhere beyond the often harsh dualities of life.  The Master, however, advised him to delve into the sensations and inquire into the Experiencer of them instead of avoiding them by seeking Truth outside of them.  Then the student would see that this very moment, in all its seeming imperfection, is the boundless perfection of Buddha Itself.

Lastly, the schedule is a great example of “the middle path.”  “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” and the teachers there recognize that it can be harmful to completely exclude leisure time and fun. Great Vow sounds austere, but there really is room there for human beauty.  I made many great friends by getting to know people during the off days, lunch, and non-silent work periods.  On off days people played music, watched movies, and went on nature hikes with each other.  There are computers and phones there for moderated use, so it was possible for me to maintain relationships with people outside the monastery.  And, to my insane delight, Great Vow is possibly the only Zen monastery in history with an official marimba band!

The overall atmosphere was spiritually serious but there was simultaneously a feeling of human warmth and humor.  To me, the monastery embodied one of my favorite quotes, “Take your responsibilities seriously, but never take yourself seriously.”  For what other monastery would allow me to dance with an American flag through pastoral streets of Clatskanie while Zen monks rocked out above me on a marimba float (with a drum set!) during a 4th of July parade?  Another time it snowed and Chozen invited everyone to go sledding after formal meditation. As I watched Chozen and other priests laughing and zipping down the massive driveway leading up to the temple, I reflected to myself that God had led me to a truly magical place.

Working with the Teachers

One of the most valuable things about Great Vow was the contact I had there with the teachers.  As I mention in my book, a good Zen teacher does not have supernatural powers and their most powerful gift is their own practice experience.  For Zen is just like any other skill-if you want to learn the guitar, for instance, you would save yourself lots of time and effort by finding a skilled teacher who can guide you through the basic principals of the craft.  The teachers and senior monks at Great Vow helped me in a similar way with my own practice by pointing out my weaknesses in meditation and giving me specific guidance on how to improve.

Everyone at the monastery, especially during retreats, eventually does “Sanzen,” (sometimes translated as “Zen Together”) which is a face to face private meeting with the teacher where the student displays their current spiritual understanding.  The teacher then gives personalized guidance and rings a bell to signify the end of the session.  Generally speaking, going to sanzen was like subjecting myself to a massive hammer that demolished my ego’s spiritual pride.  Like an unflinching mirror, the teachers always pointed out areas I needed to improve.  This process was humbling and difficult but I can safely say that the timely guidance I received saved me perhaps years of effort I would have spent smugly satisfied with my own poor understanding.

For this reason I now believe that practicing without a teacher is inherently limited, and a genuine teacher is invaluable. Yet, at the end of the day, the good thing about Zen is that the teacher’s only job is to point you back to your own direct experience.  The Buddha manifesting as the teacher is the same Buddha manifesting as the student.  Both are merely ephemeral sparks sprouting from the consuming Fire of the Eternal Mystery that is the Teacher of all who alone is.

The group support, or “positive peer pressure” created by group practice was also a powerful aspect of the monastic experience.  Some of the most beautiful moments of my life have found me sitting in long periods of silent meditation with an intimate group at the monastery.  In these moments I learned the truth of Jesus’s words, “Where two or more are gathered, there I am.”

Conclusion: Macrocosm and Microcosm

I ended up staying at Great Vow for 6 months and have since been back twice, making my total time there 9 months. People often ask me what I learned there, and by far the most important thing is the power of meditation and the value of spiritual practice generally.  As my great friend Len Swanson who I met at Great Vow says, “The more I sit in silent meditation, the more I believe in God.”  My stay there confirmed, again and again, that true satisfaction in life can only be found in God, and that therefore my spiritual practice should be my life’s first priority.

Secondly, it taught me that this high ideal is possible to embody in the complexity of modern life.  The teachers there had had families, careers, and were all in all very normal people.  Furthermore, the schedule taught me that a life dedicated to enlightenment could still include all the things I loved about human existence: friendship, art, fun, meaningful work, etc.  Thirdly, it helped me see that my entire life is intrinsically divine, and that EVERYTHING I do is spiritual practice.

The monastic experience, for me, was a macrocosmic experience of spiritual potential.  The wisdom I gained there, however, applies to the microcosm of my life now.  My daily meditation practice is the same thing as a monastic practice;  in the monastery I dedicated many months of my life solely to spiritual practice; now I take about an hour out of my day, dropping all else, and dedicate it solely to meditation.  This seems like a minor thing, but it completely changes the direction of my day and the degree to which I am in tune with God.  And when I eat, work, hang out with people, go to school, etc. I now try to see everything as a meditation and a miraculous, holy activity.

In conclusion, it is obviously unnecessary to live in a monastery to become enlightened.   There are many paths to God, and as Jesus said “Anyone who seeks will find.” And as I have tried to show in my new book, “Daily Bliss,” it is possible to integrate a meaningful spiritual practice into your life today.  Furthermore, since this very universe is the manifestation of God, how could God be limited to a specific place?  I remember thinking to myself before going to Great Vow, “Everything will be perfect when I get to the monastery!” Then, when I finally got there I sometimes thought, “This is so hard, I can’t wait to get back to my life in society!” This showed me that the real key to enlightenment was eliminating desire in own my mind, not in going to a “holy” place.

I cannot deny, however, that my experiences at Great Vow radically changed my life and showed me what was spiritually possible.  I also must admit that monastic practice, and meditation retreats in general, are a unique set of helpful conditions that facilitate spiritual understanding, and that their effects cannot easily be replicated by other mediums. And, in my opinion, living for a short time in a Zen monastery and/or going on a silent meditation retreat would be an invaluable experience for many people in our society that are seeking genuine inner peace.

Thank you for reading!  May you and all beings be happy! Om.

-Jeffrey

– The Zendo (or meditation hall) at Great Vow

-A photo of Great Vow

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  • Alex Reisner

    I’ve always wondered about what your experience there was like. Thanks for sharing! I’ve been considering trying to incorporate some elements of monasticism into my own life to give structure and community in my spiritual development.

    • Jeffreydrothman

      Thanks for the feedback, Alex! There is certainly a great wisdom in monasticism, but as with all spiritual perspectives it is not ultimate. One person’s medicine is another’s poison, and we all have a completely unique path to God. What if, for instance, Martin Luther King Jr. had spent most his time as a monk! The only safe bet, in my view, is to sincerely seek the will of God for our individual life.