The year was 1992 and I was 20 years of age. I had just started university in Bergen, and in my spare time I was training the martial art iaido; “Japanese swordmanship”. We were about ten people, meeting for 4 hours every Thursday. The leader of our dojo was a very charismatic and inspiring man who studied law, philosophy and religion, master degree level. We spent those weekly hours doing kata, “patterns” with our samurai swords, practicing our kiai screams, and in many different ways challenging our egos and consciousness. If someone needed to cry in a corner for four hours, it was accepted and embraced. He or she would be left alone, offered to talk by our trainer, but not forced and not confronted harshly. It was an oasis for us young 20 somethings.
We didn´t aim towards new colours of belts. We aimed towards our knowing ourselves emotionally and spiritually. Often our trainer would sit and tell us stories about Buddha, Jesus, or an other great philosopher, switching on our appetite for learning from the great thinkers, and not least, switching on that part of us that recognized truth eccoing within when we heard it presented. No dogma. Only here, now. Nothing holy. Zensho Iaido, our club was called. Ground breaking years for me. I still have my hakama. (Samurai black trousers). I aquired the yellow belt. And when I one fine day get the money, I for sure will buy myself a samurai sword.
Our trainer had told us about an old zen temple in France where he had been. So that Summer, I went there. I was supposed to go together with one of the other guys in our group, but he dropped out. So I sat myself on that plane, 20 years old, no knowledge of the French language, and off I flew. The people seated next to me on the plane, helped me through the airport, on to a train to the trainstation… there I met a Spanish family, who brought me onto the train with them and dropped me off in a taxi in Blois, telling the chauffeur where I was going! Hahaha…. I wasn´t worried for a minute. I was just taken care of step by step, and never had time to stress about anything.
In the taxi, the driver and I chatted away using gesticulations. He asked me for how long I was going to stay at the temple. I told him “five days, ten fifteen, I don´t know!” We laughed….
When we arrived in the forrest there, it was pitch dark. I paid him and there I was, standing in front of a huge old castle like house… I went up the stairs, through the open door. Nobody. I left my luggage there, and went back outside. From a distance I could hear music! I thought do they really have neighbours near by? And started walking towards the sound… on a little path between palm trees… Now I could see some kind of light source… The music went “Give it away, give it away, give it away now…!” Red hot chilli peppers! I loved that album! I kept walking, and there. Between the trees. There was a bonfire, and around it sat skinheads! I hesitated for a sec, back home I was the leader of Sos Racism, and skinheads were far from my favourite kind of people… But these people greeted me with big smiles, so I walked closer. There was a hut behind them, a bar of some sort, it seemed…
“Hello,” they said. “Are you coming to the temple?” I nodded. “Welcome! We are having a little party tonight, as we are finished with ten very serious days of meditation.”
Soon I had a glass of French beer in my hand, and was dancing bare feet in the sand by the bon fire. The entrance could not have been better!
I slept on a mattress on the floor upstairs in the dojo, on the women´s side. The gallery on the other side was for the men. It was the cheapest accomodation they had. And it was fine.
Every morning we woke up by a monk ringing a bell. Fifteen minutes later we all sat in lotus positions downstairs in the dojo. First there was buddhist chanting. Soothing to the mind. Then we just sat. First half, one of the four main monks gave a talk. Zen stories. Then we walked around in a circle for a bit. Second half of the zazen the big, big bell outside the dojo was rung, every ten minutes or so.
After meditation, we had breakfast. Women and men on separate tables. Chanting before starting, and same breakfast every day. A porridge one could put salt or sugar on. Tasted good.
After breakfast wee had “samoo”… work… some went to the field to pick onions etc, others cleaned bathrooms, others helped in the kitchen to prepare the meals of the day. I mostly helped out in the kitchen. All those delicious vegetables. Which they grew themselves. Wine was collected from a farmer near by, in buckets! Very exotic to Norwegian little me.
After work, we had a break, and after that a meal before more meditation, as I remember. We meditated 3 times a day, then after a week, 5 times a day… as I remember it.
In some evenings we could have wine in the forest tmple bar. We also had wine with dinner. Delicious dinners. Other nights, there was no alcohol. Then meditation took the main seat.
Zazen was nice for me and it was hard. It is actually very difficult to sit still first thing in the morning, for a long time, trying to empty your mind. And then again later in the day. And again.
I remember thinking, “Hey, I will save these thoughts until I´m sitting there!” … my mind saving up thoughts to be preoccupied with, during the time it was supposed to empty itself…hehehehe…
What can I say… I sat and I sat. And me staying there did change my inner self radically. It surely did. For the better and for ever. Actually.
I stayed for 12 days. The administration told me I could stay on, and pay them later! But I wanted to go home to my new boyfriend. Silly me. I wish I had stayed for another week or two. But yeah, I was only 20 and I was in love.
I was the youngest person there. And the only Norwegian. And one of the very few persons present that had not been there before. Most of the 250 temple guests had returned to la gendronniére many many times, Summer after Summer. It was the first zen temple in Europe, founded by the late Japanese man Taisen Deshimaru. His four main monks were now in charge of the zen temple.
What did I learn there? Many different things.
The most important of course being the experience of sitting still in meditation.
I learnt of Kyosaku, the asking for a monk to hit me on my shoulder with a flat stick, in order to help me either relax or wake up, regain equilibrium…
I enjoyed very very much the musicality of the bell, the chanting, the big Tibetan singing bowl, the sound of the head monk telling anecdotes in French which were then translated into English, in a very pleasant sounding melody and rhythm in addition to the content of the story…
I learnt in the evenings of friendship across languages, and that the French men´s flirtation was not to be taken too seriously… I learnt to take orders of “crepe avec beur et sucre”, and to find the right change for people when they paid across the bar there…
I also learnt something through two different confrontations I had with people there:
One, he was the gardener, a Canadian man in his 50s or so… Frank? I remember once skipping down the pathway after dinner, on my way to the bonfire and bar, and I was making up a song as I often do… some kind of rhyme, I don´t remember it now. I passed Frank, and he said to me that I was not allowed to sing like that. Because what was from the dojo belonged in the dojo and should not be brought outside of it. “But what about that nothing holy, no dogma – thing…?” I replied, bewildered. He asked me if I thought I was smarter than Taisen Deshimaru. Which was the end of that conversation. It felt like a punch in my belly. But it did not make me think that his opinion was more right than my own. Nothing holy. I like that.
Two, I was sitting in the dojo in meditation and my legs were hurting so bad in that lotus position. So I decided to sit in seisa, which is the samurai start position, sitting on one´s knees, ready like a cat to react if someone attacks. I was sitting there enjoying how this position allowed my body to be quiet so I could indeed focus on silencing my mind.
Then suddenly came a monk and hit me on the shoulder with his kyosaku stick!! Which I had NOT asked for. Normally you ASK to be hit. Or else they never hit you. But now he did!
Automatically, on reflex, I jumped down into lotus position.
He didn´t say a word, I just instinctively knew that´s what the issue was.
Beating heart. Shock. Meditation continued.
Afterwards, whilst we were all 250 of us finding our shoes to leave the dojo, the monk came storming up to me, he shouted at me “Why you not do zazen?! Why you not do zazen?!” I don´t remember if I answered him. It feels foggy. He was shaming me. Young as I was, I did not know that. Had it been today, he would have gotten a reply, and I would have gone to the main monks and asked what this behaviour was supposed to mean. Today I call such behaviour violence.
So those two episodes taught me something about authority. How some believe they have the right to correct others, in an unfriendly way. In the name of what? Of zen?! I do not accept it. I do not.
I include those two anecdotes here because I think they are important knowledge. Not to damage the zen temple. It was one of my life´s most important experiences. It really was. It shook me and woke me up. In more positive ways than negative.
The time I spent there, with myself. Is what I mean. That I was actually sitting there. Disciplined. Discovering my own resistance against it. And discovering how it became easier, and a layer of silence formed at the bottom of my inner self. A layer that I ever since have built on to.
I feel certain that I have spent time in temples before, in previous lifetimes. And I certainly would like to do it again as well. There is peace and freedom to find in a regulated daily routine. The meeting with oneself there, sitting. Trying not to think. It is … revealing … I learnt many new things about myself those 12 days in Temple Zen la Gendronniére in the Summer of 1992.
For many years after that, I wanted to go back, I longed to go back.
Then I met another man, and focus changed… but still. I still have those black and white photos we could buy, of the instruments in the dojo, and the veteran German soldier who always took his legs off before he sat down to meditate… I remember Muhammed from Marocco, and Francis Brown from London, and many others. I stayed in touch with some of them for years…and still hope to see them again some day…
Would I go back today? Yes. I would.
And I will recommend it to every human being who wants to dwell on and increase their ability to in essence feel presence.
and U are a part of it.
Remember the importance of
Let me end this post with a haiku poem from my book:
Shiny, still mirror
Sword slashes the autumn storm
& the original text, in my mother tongue Norwegian:
Blankt og rolig speil
Sverd spjærer høstorkanen