In a fitting setting, Antai-ji temple is burrowed in a very isolated area, deep in the northern mountains of Japan’s Hyogo Prefecture. This would definitely not be a place that one would unintentionally stumble upon. After a 30 minute bus ride from Hamasaka station to Kutoyama, visitors have to travel an hour by foot on an unpaved path that leads to a long flight of stairs surrounded by dense forest that finally leads to the temple. Four times a year on designated dates, many visitors from Europe, Asia, and North America gladly take this trek to reach the temple. Why would someone go on such an arduous journey to get to Antai-ji temple?
Antai-ji is a Zen Buddhist Monastery that teaches the Zazen practice and self-sustainable living. It was founded in 1921 by Oka Sokan and originally located in northern Kyoto.
The temple was vacated during the World War II and remained the same until 1949 when Sawaki Kōdō and Uchiyama Kōshō, teacher and disciple on the Buddha way, moved into Antai-ji and made it a place for the pure and simple practice of sitting Zazen.
After the 1960’s the increased number of visitors together with the new buildings being constructed around the temple created a level of noise that made the abbot, Watanabe Kōhō, take the decision to relocate it to a more secluded place in Hyogo. Nowadays possessing 50 hectares of land Antai-ji is located near a national park on the coast of the Japanese Sea. The self-sufficient life at the temple has been practised and protected by the former abbot Miyaura Shinyu.
After Shinyu’s sudden death in February 2002, the temple has been conducted by his disciple, the German monk Muho. In an interview, he shares his view “Happiness is often misunderstood as a feeling that we have to run after, or we have to make it. However I believe that happiness is not a feeling but the practice of living one’s life at every moment throughout.” At Antai-ji, this is achieved through Zazen, which is the practice of seated meditation where the practitioner just sits in lotus posture, leaving the thoughts and judgements to pass by. Depending on the schedule, this is done from 4 to 15 hours a day, with very detailed instructions on how to behave and sit properly.
Although there is no cost to stay, there is an application process where certain requirements are essential. A basic knowledge of Japanese language and customs is necessary to communicate effectively with others within the community. Men and women are both welcome but need to be 18 to 40 years of age and in great health and physical condition to do hard manual labour.
One may ask, ‘why physical health is necessary if practising Zazen requires being still for hours?’ In order to sit for half the day in the Zazen position and even to eat meals in the traditional Japanese position, a certain flexibility and level of fitness are needed.
Also, since Antai-ji is a communal environment, each person staying there is responsible for doing their share of labour including working in rice fields, construction work, chopping wood and other activities necessary for the upkeep of the temple and surrounding areas. The most life altering requirement is that each resident must be able to commit to staying at least three years. The first year is usually to learn the responsibilities and get comfortable with the schedule, the second year is usually focused on mastery of what is learned and by the third year, most are able to fulfil their own duties and help teach others as well.
The life of a Buddhist monk at Antai-ji is definitely not for everyone, but many from all over the world, including actual and former abbots, have got there and found their own happiness.