Trip to Eiheiji & Sojiji for honorary Abbot ceremonies, and Kyoto temple visits

-by Taigen Leighton

Along with a number of other American Soto Zen teachers who had not previously done so, this year I was offered the opportunity by the Japanese Soto shu (school) to perform Zuise ceremonies at Eiheiji and Sojiji, the two Soto Zen headquarter temples in Japan. These ceremonies of becoming honorary abbot at the two temples go back in Soto Zen history to the 16th century, and are part of authorization for teacher positions in Japanese Soto shu. As part of our American maturing and development, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association is the organization that now recognizes Soto Zen teachers with Dharma transmission in the United States. But many of us still feel our connection with Japan, and have practiced extensively there. For myself, I was deeply inspired in 1970, four years before I began formal Zen practice, by three months of viewing temples in Kyoto and Nara, the ancient capitals. In 1990 I returned to Japan as a priest and spent more than two years living in Kyoto and doing translations of Dogen with Shohaku Okumura, along with teaching English for my livelihood. I also spent a great deal of my free time visiting many temples and other historic Buddhist sites throughout the Kyoto and Nara areas, as well as Eiheiji. Given my personal connection to Japan, I decided to perform the Zuise ceremonies.

This offer to perform Zuise depended on completing the ceremonies during 2008. So a week before Christmas I found myself, still somewhat jet-lagged, staying at Eiheiji and the next night at Sojiji in a whirlwind of ceremonial rehearsal and performance. I was joined for the Zuise ceremony at Eiheiji by Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and Seijo Jean LeClerc from Paris, a disciple of Les Kaye in our Suzuki Roshi lineage. We were then joined in performing Zuise at Sojiji by two young Japanese Soto priests. On the same days, in reverse order (first Sojiji then Eiheji), also performing the ceremony were several old friends from San Francisco Zen Center, Linda Cutts, Steve Stucky, Pat Phelan (now at Chapel Hill, N.C.), and Daijaku Kinst. So I felt joined in spirit with them.

Eiheiji was founded by Dogen Zenji after he moved in 1243 from Kyoto to the rugged, remote mountains of Fukui on the north coast by the Japan Sea. In late winter deep snow often weighs down the Eiheiji rooves and covered walkways, but we had an unseasonably warm reception from the climate spirits. Beautiful old Eiheiji is built on a mountain slope, and moving between the many different halls during the ceremony involved going up and down many stairways. After participating in morning service in the huge Dharma Hall, we were able to enter the inner chamber of the Founder's Hall for the highly unique opportunity to make prostrations to the ashes of Dogen Zenji and other early Eiheiji abbots. Then we served as Doshi or officiating priests at the Buddha Hall and Founder's Hall, as well as meeting with the Abbot, receiving tea and certificates, and enjoying a spectacular congratulatory breakfast. Hoitsu Suzuki Roshi, abbot of Rinso-in, is the son of SFZC founder Suzuki Roshi and long-time friend of Zen Center folks. In addition to having seen him many times at SFZC, I had visited him at Rinso-in when I lived in Kyoto. Unbeknownst to me, Hoitsu is now tanto (head of practice) at Eiheiji, a very important position in the Soto school, so I was delighted when he appeared to meet with us.

After finishing the morning Zuise service at Eiheiji, we were shepherded onto the bullet train to Sojiji, past beautiful Mount Fuji, by Rev. Kiko Tatedera, who is in residence at the Soto Zen International Center in San Francisco, and very graciously guided us from Kyoto through the end of both ceremonies. I am very grateful for Rev. Kiko's helpfulness throughout. Sojiji was initially set up a ways northeast of Eiheiji by its great founder Keizan Zenji, a few generations after Dogen. Keizan is considered the second founder of Japanese Soto Zen. In the eighteenth century Sojiji was moved to Yokohama, near Tokyo, so it is now a very large temple complex in a very urban context, alongside an associated school and hospital.

The Sojiji ceremony was relatively similar in its general outlines, including the exceptional opportunity to go up behind the main altar to the founder's hall and offer prostrations to ashes of Keizan and other early Soto abbots. I learned much about Soto Zen forms from our instructions, including the distinctions between Eiheiji "way" and Sojiji "way." Both involved wearing red slippers, although at Eiheiji the slippers required extra ceremonial bows. Both also required a new "mokuran" brown okesa (monk's robe), usually worn only after performing these ceremonies, but the Sojiji Zuise also involved wearing a red okesa and red rakusu (smaller ceremonial robe), which are worn only while performing these ceremonies at Sojiji. At Eiheiji the officiating priests use whisks, while at Sojiji we carried large Nyoi, or teaching staffs, also red. While such ceremonies may seem anachronistic to the sensibilities of American Zen practitioners and our work of spiritual development and meditative awareness, I felt deeply moved by our connection to these ancient traditions, and to the many monks in training at these temples, now and for centuries past. This seemed like a fitting preparation for our Ancient Dragon Zen Gate sangha's January opening of our new temple in Chicago, now registered in Sotoshu. The Zuise ceremony also involves making many full prostrations, so by the end of the two ceremonies I had a quarter-shaped red circle at the top of my forehead that remained as a souvenir for a week.

Click on pictures for larger versions.

1-Eiheiji Buddha hall 2-Eiheiji after Zuise 3-Sojiji Zuise group
Eiheiji Buddha hall - small center part Eiheiji after Zuise ceremony Sojiji group after Zuise
4-Sojiji Zuise 5-Sojiji Mt. Gate 6-Sojiji lantern
Sojiji after Zuise ceremony Sojiji Mountain Gate Sojiji Stone Latern

After finishing with the Zuise ceremonies, I returned to Kyoto with my wife Naomi, who accompanied me, for several days of enjoying many inspiring ancient temples, Zen gardens, and Buddhist statues, including a day-trip to nearby Nara. We also enjoyed visiting with several of my old friends from Kyoto, including Rinzai monk Tom Kirchner at his temple Rinsenji, part of the Tenryuji complex, and my old friends, shakuhachi master Dr. Preston Houser and his wife Michiyo Katsura, who is actually descended from Dogen's family and has been working on a book and films about the Japanese nun tradition.

I would like to share some of the wonders of the ancient Japanese Buddhist cultural ground through a short selection of Naomi's photos of temples and gardens, as well as a few from Zuise. (I'm also including a few pictures of Buddha images from Koryuji and Sanjusangendo that I had previously, and a portrait after Zuise at Eiheiji provided by Eiheiji.) The dragon was a motif we kept noticing, in anticipation of our new Chicago temple.

To help identify the pictures, I will mention the Kyoto temples we enjoyed on this pilgrimage, which included great Rinzai monastic complexes Nanzenji, Daitokuji, and Tenryuji. Nanzenji includes great examples of Japanese gardens such as the pond garden at sub-temple Tenju-an and dry landscape "karesansui" rock gardens at sub-temple Nansen-in, including "borrowed scenery." Daitokuji includes sub-temple Kodo-in with a moss and bamboo garden and also a small tea ceremony room associated with the great tea master Sen-no-Rikkyu; and also a small dry rock garden at sub-temple Ryugen-an "Dragon Source Temple." The Rinzai monastic complex Tenryuji "Heavenly Dragon Temple" includes the renowned great heart character-shaped pond garden built by its great 14th century Rinzai founder, Muso Soseki; and also a very large, modern dry rock garden at Rinsenji, where Rev. Tom Kirchner is the monk in residence.

7-Nanzenji Tsuju-an 8-Nanzenji Basin 9-Nansen-in
Nanzenji Tenju-an garden Nanzenji Stone water basin Nansen-in Abbot's garden
10-Nansen-in garden_roofs 11-Nansen-in karesansui 12-Nansen-in tea path
Nansen-in stone garden & roof-tops Nansen-in karesansui garden Nansen-in Teahouse path
13-Kodo-in T rm.#2 14-Ryugen-an.moss&rox 15-Ryugen-an karesansui
Kodo-in Tea room Ryugen-an moss & rock garden Ryugen-an small karesansui garden
16-Tenryuji garden 17-Tenryuji island 18-Tenryuji Dragon
Tenryuji pond garden Tenryuji island in the pond Tenryuji Dragon
19-Rinsenji karesansui 20-Rinsenji karesansui_gate#54EE
Rinsenji karesansui garden Rinsenji karesansui garden and gate

We also viewed Koryuji, founded at the beginning of the 7th century, a century before Kyoto became the capital, which includes a large hall with many amazing Buddhist statues, including the famous contemplative Maitreya Bodhisattva (Miroku in Japanese), pondering how to save all suffering beings and become the next Buddha, as predicted by Shakyamuni Buddha. Another great site for Buddha images we saw in Kyoto is Sanjusangendo, a long hall with a large central 1000-armed seated Kannon /Kanzeon, Bodhisattva of Compassion, about 12 feet tall, surrounded stretching out on either side by one thousand life-sized standing Kannon statues, all sculpted in the Kamakura period, contemporary with Dogen.

21-Maitreya-Koryuji 22-Kannon_Sanjusangendo bk#E767
Koryuji Maitreya Bodhisattva Sanjusangendo Kannon Bodhisattva
23-1000 Kannons-Sanjusangendo
Sanjusangendo among the thousand Kannons

Gracing the southern entry to the old capital Kyoto is the Shingon temple Toji, with many great statues by the Shingon (Japanese Vajrayana) 9th century founder Kukai, and the tallest pagoda in Japan. Another Rinzai temple we visited was Kenninji, where Dogen trained before he traveled to China, and where he stayed for a little while after his return. The Dharma hall there has wonderful modern dragons painted on its ceiling. We also found a wonderful dragon at a basin at the Rokkakudo, a small temple near where we stayed, noted as the site of the Pure Land founder Shinran's great revelation.

24-TojiPagoda 25-Kenninji Dharma hall
Toji Pagoda Kenninji Dharma hall
26-Kenninji dragons 27-Dragon-Rokkakudo
Kenninji Dragons Dragon at Rokkakudo

We also went for a day to Nara, the 8th century capital with temples I greatly admire. We visited Kofukuji with its powerful Buddha images, fine pagoda, and playful deer herd. Also we went to Todaiji, the Kegon /Flower Ornament school temple with the Great Buddha, the largest bronze statue in the world (ears over 8 feet tall), which depicts the Dharmakaya Buddha, equal to the whole cosmos. This fine statue is housed in the largest wooden building in the world, both built in Dogen's time to reconstruct a previous, even larger 8th century building and statue that had burned.

28-TodaijiBldg 29-Todaiji Daibutsu
Todaiji Buddha hall Todaiji Great Buddha

Please enjoy the pictures as a small sample of our Japanese Buddhist cultural heritage.