“Hello,” said the burly Japanese man standing in front of me. “Are you interested in Zen meditation?”
It was one of my first weeks teaching at an elementary school out in the countryside in Yashima, a small town in Akita prefecture. I was in a field near the school, planting sunflower seeds with my students and members of the community. After planting was done, this strong-looking, bald-headed man came up and introduced himself to me.
“Oh yes, definitely!” I replied.
He had chosen the right person to ask. For a long time I have been interested in Buddhism, and I hoped to explore it a bit more in Japan. I found out that my new friend, Joko Sato, is the head monk of a nearby Zen Buddhist temple, the Chokai-san International Zendo. We exchanged numbers and arranged for me to go to his temple to try Zen meditation.
Fast forward one week and I was following Reverend Sato’s car with my own little Suzuki Swift, driving along a narrow winding road that climbed into the mountains. Up ahead, a little truck appeared, coming down on the other side of the road. We both shifted over to give the driver some space. Now, I had only been driving for a few weeks, and I was still getting used to the narrow roads in the countryside. Driving on the opposite side of the road from Canada, it was a little hard for me to gauge how wide my car extended on the left.
I gave the farmer and his truck a little too much room, and then – thunk! – my left front tire sank into the channel – commonly known as a gaijin trap for this very reason – at the side of the road.
My car wouldn’t budge, and it didn’t take long for Rev Sato and the farmer to realize what had happened. They jumped out of their vehicles to help. Sato suggested I put the car in reverse while he and the farmer tried to lift the front out of the ditch. However, as strong as Rev Sato is, we had no luck. He got out his phone to call for some more help. Moments later another car came down from the mountain, and out came another monk – fully dressed in brown Buddhist robes. After some shuffling around, he got into my car, while I joined the farmer and Rev Sato in lifting the front. A few attempts – and then success.
We continued to the top of the mountain and reached the temple – a beautiful wooden building that looks out over a valley and offers a spectacular view of Mount Chokai, the second largest mountain in the Tohoku region.
Rev Sato gave me instructions on the proper way to enter the meditation hall – covering my left fist with my right hand in front of my chest, then stepping over the threshold and walking behind the statue of Manjushri Buddha. I was then shown how to arrange my cushion and sit for meditation, or zazen. He explained the breathing, instructing me to place my tongue against the roof of my mouth and breathe quietly through my nose.
“Do not concentrate on any particular object or thought,” he explained. “Thoughts will arise, but do not become caught up in them or become distracted. Let your thoughts come and go freely, without dwelling on them.”
We meditated together for half an hour. For someone like me, who is quite inexperienced with meditation, it felt like an eternity. Eventually Rev Sato struck the bell to signal the end of the meditation, and I could stretch my aching legs. It had been my first attempt at Zen meditation, and it certainly was an experience. Life in rural Japan provides plenty of unique encounters – and getting rescued from a ditch by Zen Buddhist monks was an experience to top them all.