Hadrian Abbott is an occasional participant in the sitting group I host in Fredericton. He spent 7 months – December 2009 to June 2010 – at Shodo Harada’s temple, Sogenji, in Japan. He’s a nurse, and a year after he returned to Canada, he spent another six months at Enso House, the hospice associated with Harada’s center on Whidbey Island in Washington State.
In 2013, after my visit to Enso House, I asked Hadrian about his first impressions of the temple in Japan.
“I got there by at about 10:30 at night. To get there you drive through Okayama and up into the mountains, through settlements, villages, towns. Then the taxi driver turned off the road, and it became pitch black. And we went on and on until his headlights illuminated this really ornate Japanese gate.”
As soon as he arrived, he was taken to the men’s zendo. “They gave me my futon to sleep on and some blankets and said, ‘We’re chanting in five minutes.’ So I hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours, but ten minutes later I’m chanting and then thirty minutes later I was in bed. The next morning, I was up at 3:30, getting ready to chant again and sit.
“By Japanese standards, Sogenji is not that old, only about four hundred, five hundred years. And it’s set in sort of a V between two steep hills. There’s two zendos. One for the women; one for the men. And in the middle there’s the hondo where the formal chanting took place.”
“Like a Buddha Hall?” I ask.
“A Buddha Hall, yes. All the meditation was done in the zendo that I lived in. So the men lived and slept where we meditated. It’s long and thin with a concrete floor and raised tans [platforms] to sit on. And it’s furnished with tatami and then each person is given a zafu [cushion] and a zabuton [mat on which to place the zafu]. And around the walls there’s shelves with curtaining, so each person is given an area where you keep your rolled-up futon and blankets, and there’s a little shelf to put personal things on.
“I’m still not quite sure of the system of Japanese temples, but Sogenji is a royal temple, which means it receives a little bit of money each year from the royal family. The grounds are fairly extensive. There’s a very old graveyard there that the monastery was built around. The hondo burnt down, I think, a hundred or two hundred years ago and was rebuilt exactly as it was. When I was there, construction was just finishing on a building where the monastery was going to teach traditional flower arranging. So it’s a mixture of new and old.”
I ask him what Shodo Harada is like. Hadrian frowns and considers a moment.
“I remember some of what he said, but mostly it’s just being in the presence of somebody who has reached quite an advanced level of awareness. I suppose by Japanese standards, he’s small. Five foot one or two. He’s thin. It’s hard to guess his age. He’s got quite an incredible charisma when he goes into a room. He’s got a real presence.”
There were 16 residents, a few Japanese, but the others came from Canada, the US, the Netherlands, Southern India, Hungary, Poland, Australia, Belgium, and Switzerland. The working language was English.
I ask what language is used during retreats, and he explains that an interpreter usually translated Harada’s talks. Then he adds, “There was one month when she was away, and I actually liked that retreat. He speaks English very well. He has a thick accent, but you can understand him. Mostly it was done in Japanese and English. Teishos [formal lectures] were like the movie Lost in Translation, where he would speak for twenty minutes and people who spoke Japanese found it funny as hell and would laugh and nod and listen. The interpreter would translate for two to five minutes and then go on.”
The residential schedule was highly disciplined.
“You’d get up anywhere between 3:30 and 4:00, at 4:00 you’d be in the hondo for chanting in Japanese and English. There was a little bit of English, not much. Mostly in Japanese. Then we’d go back to the zendo and sit for an hour or an hour and a half and during the sitting people would go off to do sanzen [personal interviews]. Then we’d have breakfast. Then we’d have a twenty minute, half hour period to clean up our living quarters before meeting for samu, the work period. That would take us to lunch.”
“What kind of work?” I ask.
“Anything to make the monastery run. So you’d be cleaning, you would work in the kitchen. Somebody always had the job of getting the fire going. People would be assigned to clean the administrative building, to clean the hondo. Any kind of gardening, cleaning.”
“And after lunch?”
“We had time off. You could have a bath. Then around 4:30 the tenzo would leave some leftovers in the kitchen if people wanted. You could do whatever you wanted as long as it was in the monastery grounds.”
“You had to stay on the grounds.”
“There was a shop that we called ‘Happy Town’ where, if you asked, you go to get supplies.”
“Oh, candy, apples, tea. Then it’s time to get ready for the evening sit which could be anywhere from two to four hours. That would take you to about nine. And then there’s chanting at the end. Which is incredibly quick—fifteen minutes. Then bedtime.”
“You said that when you first arrived, it was just as they were getting ready for that chanting.”
“Yeah. It was the fastest chant you ever heard. They gave me my book. I was still on the first page while they were on the fourth. Incredibly quick chanting.”
Hadrian is light-hearted as he describes the temple discipline, but he recognizes it is something that could be misused. “I remember raking one day with a young American monk, and we were laughing because we could see how very easily this could be a way of training soldiers, as it was in the Second World War.”
Hadrian now works in a methadone clinic where he offers meditation instruction to clients.
“We work with the harm reduction model which is to work with each patient as they are. We don’t start with the premise that you’re going to quit all of your drugs immediately. We can provide medical care, opioid substitutes or opioids. But after that it’s to work with people to foster a way for them to improve, for them to develop, or for them to explore other choices. ‘Harm reduction’ is hard to define in the sense that it’s a lot of different things. At the center is human dignity – and this is the hard bit – working with each person to foster a sense of dignity and value. If you have a chance to sit in meditation, working on breathing and relaxing, that could seep through into how you interact with other things. You can develop a way of being with other people that’s different than anything you’ve experienced.”
“What has the practice done for you?” I ask.
“I think it’s made me more aware of myself, of others. Of being open. It’s developed a spiritual practice that I never thought I’d have. I’d also say it’s knocked some of the bullshit out of me,” he adds with a laugh.