Welcome to Mokurai's Temple!

Japanese Gardens and Aesthetics

Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

Monastic Life
Persona Play
Some Writings
Suggested Reading

Japanese Films

Essential Dharma


The Clan of Matsuyama

SCA Resources
(The Chatelaine's Box)



Portraying a Japanese Buddhist Monk in the SCA

The Monastic Life

Prayer and Meditation:
Each day in the monastery has a proscribed amount of time set aside for meditation. Typically, at least three to four hours of the day which begins at dawn and ends sometime after sundown. Meditation is conducted as a group in the Meditation Hall, however, individuals may also meditate in solitude at other times of the day. Group meditation is usually monitored by the roshi or by one of his assistants (higher-ranking monks). Typically, the monks sit on mats or cushions on a bench which runs around the room. In Rinzai monasteries, they sit facing the walls of the hall. In Soto, they face into the room. Sitting meditation is interspersed at intervals with walking meditation which helps alleviate the discomfort from sitting zazen for an extended period.
Prayer is conducted in the Dharma Hall or Buddha Hall. Here the monks chant sutras together. This chanting is another form of meditation. Part of Mahayana tradition says that each time a sutra (especially the Lotus) is read aloud (or even its name invoked) the sound is a blessing to all sentient beings and can help them achieve salvation. Thus, the sutra chanting is a service performed for the benefit of the world.

Atta dipa: a Rinzai Zen monastery morning chant: Originally in Pali (the language the Buddha spoke)
You are the light itself
Rely on yourself
Do not rely on others.
The Dharma is the light
Do not rely on anything other than the Dharma.

As in Europe, monasteries in Japan were supposed to be more-or-less self-sufficient. Monks would work rice fields owned by the monastery. A portion of each day was dedicated to labor maintaining the monastery ñ fieldwork, gardening, cleaning, cooking, building needed things, caring for the sick, etc. The duties were usually rotated among the monks. I believe it was not uncommon for monks to work on public works projects as well; building dams and bridges and the like to help improve conditions for the community around the monastery.

Traditionally, Zen monasteries served only a couple of meals a day ñ all before midday. Diet consisted mostly of rice, millet, soy, and vegetables in various forms. All monasteries were vegetarian. The position of cook was an important one. While the kitchen help rotated, there was often a dedicated head-cook monk. Cooking holds a great deal of Zen symbolism, as does eating. Monks ate together silently with the exception of prayers chanted before and after the meal. In some very strict traditions, the monks were required to say "Itadakemas" (I give thanks) before each bite!

Despite attempting to be self-sufficient, most monasteries would practice alms rounds. Collecting alms was a symbolic act as well as a practical one and, thus, even if the monastery's warehouse was full, the monks would go beg. Usually, a procession would proceed out of the monastery and through the main streets of the neighboring village. One monk would lead the way, making noise with his shakujo. The other monks would follow in single file carrying their alms bowls. Citizens of the town would come out and drop things into the bowls. Monks might also stand silently on a street corner holding out their bowls for people to drop alms in. Sometimes ringing a small bell. This was typical of monks on pilgrimage. It is a practice you can still see today. Communication with lay people was usually limited. Monks kept their hats on and did not engage in conversation. Such interaction would cause the alms gift to become an act of favoritism. If kept anonymous, the begging is thus ennobling for both parties.

Martial Arts and Sport:
Many monasteries held martial arts tournaments as a way of exercising the monks and letting off some steam (not to mention the martial training Sohei would require). Some of these events were open to outsiders, but this may be more of a post-period phenomenon. Wrestling sumo-style was popular as was armed combat with yari (spear) or naginata (a form of halberd - the traditional monk's weapon).

In most traditions, meeting privately with the roshi (master/teacher, usually the abbot) is an important event. This is when the master is able to gauge the progress of the student; consider new disciplines or advances in rank, even test to see if the student has gained enlightenment. He may give the monk a new koan, or ask him a series of questions, and so forth. Stories centered around such interviews can be full of wit and wisdom.

Arts and Learning:
Many monks were great artists and scholars. Obviously, their monasteries allowed time for study and development of creativity. Some typical arts included calligraphy and ink painting (considered a good meditative tool), tea ceremony, garden design, wood-carving, bonsai and ikebana, and poetry. Many noble and samurai children were educated in monasteries or by individual monk tutors. Monastic libraries were, like their counterparts in Europe, important repositories of knowledge. Their store houses were filled with the donations of the wealthy (grand-dad's armor, mom's kimono, various artworks, etc.) and form an important resource for modern researchers.

Pilgrimage: Angya
Two forms of pilgrimage exist in monastic life. The first is the foot journey taken when one first chooses to enter a monastery. This is considered part of the initiation process. The second is the pilgrimage taken at the individuals discretion later in his training; usually after several years in the monastery and often upon the recommendation of his roshi. This pilgrimage would take the monk to any variety of holy sites around Japan. It was considered especially beneficial for a monk to visit major monasteries of his sect and to experience the teachings of noted masters. In some cases, advanced monks (usually those who had received dharma transmission) even went to study under masters of other sects.
Tradition holds that a monk on pilgrimage would only be allowed to rest in a monastery if he could best one of the local monks in a dharma duel ñ a debate over some aspect of the Buddhas teachings or a two-way koan challenge.

Persona Play:

How do you portray what is essentially a cloistered lifestyle in the SCA? Here are a few options for persona story development:
- You are currently on angya. You have just left home to join the monastery and something has gotten in your way.
- You are a more accomplished monk and are on pilgrimage to visit Mt. Hiei, or Enryaku-ji, or the capital, etc.
- You are a lay monk. When you are not fighting the enemies of your clan, you are devoted to the study of the sutras. It is a pity the obligations of the world are so weighty! But such is the life of a samurai.
- You are a fierce sohei! Recently, you were sent out by your temple, along with several hundred other brothers, to assist the Minamoto in their struggle against the Taira. It has been a long campaign.
- You are a malcontent! The monastery is as corrupt as any brothel and you have had enough. You can read the writings of the patriarchs as well as any man, so why not do it yourself? Thus, you have come here to live alone and to build merit by assisting the poor and sick in this city.
- You are the Abbot. Sigh... The duties of running an important temple are rigorous. One hardly has time for a good game of Go. On top of all this, you have numerous meetings with ministers from the capital to secure funding of the new Dharma Hall, the new bell, and that image of the Shogun you have been ordered to produce.
- You are a scholar. The peace of the temple is alluring. Yet it is essential that the young lord of the Clan be properly educated. Thus, this posting is an honor. It is not uncommon for the Daimyo to seek your advice as well. Especially since among the texts you have studied are the sayings of The Chinese GeneralÖ
- You are an artist monk. Nobles of the court have shown a great interest in your work and you have taken to selling your paintings and copying sutras for patrons. The money is going to fund construction of a shrine in your home village. (the use of money would make this a very late period persona)

Thoughts on alms collecting in the SCA:
Doing alms" can be fun persona play. It is a very authentic way for your persona to interact with others. Exercise some common sense. First, make sure the autocrat is ok with it. Next, do not push yourself on people. This is not the period way to do it, and it is annoying. Be sensitive to those around you ñ if someone looks confused, be prepared to drop out of persona and explain what you are doing. Dont over-do the silent aspect; if someone approaches you with a sincere question, consider answering them either in or out of persona. Dont let them think your behavior is stand-of-ish and do not let them think you are hawking anything or trying to prostaletize (its obvious to you that you arent, but youd be surprised what some people will imagine).
Be prepared for people to misinterpret your persona! (magician, ninja spy, mystic priest, you name it) Once, while alms collecting at Pennsic, I had a couple grovel at my feet (literally) and ask for my blessing. Awkward moment! I didnt drop out of persona, but I realized the begging routine had to shift gears so I immediately plopped myself down in the dirt in front of them, made them get up, and asked them why they were behaving so oddly - debasing themselves before a simple monk. In the end, I did give them a blessing and it was a fun persona interchange. Finally, while rice would be the traditional alms gift, people will more likely give you money. If you collect any, make sure you donate it to the Chirurgeons, the kingdom travel fund, or a charity. Do not keep it.

Folklore, Stories and Tradition

A soldier named Nobushige came to the Zen master Hakuin, and asked: "Is there really a paradise and a hell?"
"Who are you?" inquired Hakuin.
"I am a samurai," the warrior replied.
"You, a soldier!" exclaimed Hakuin. What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar."
Nobushige became so angry that he began to draw his sword, but Hakuin continued: "So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head."
As Nobushige drew his sword Hakuin remarked: "Here open the gates of hell!"
At these words the samurai, perceiving the master's discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
"Here open the gates of paradise," said Hakuin.
- from Zen flesh, Zen bones, Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, compiled by Paul Reps

To study the way is to study the self
To study the self is to forget the self
To forget the self is to be enlightened
by all things of the universe.
To be enlightened by all things is to
transcend the distinction of self and other
and to go on in ceaseless enlightenment forever.
- Dogen Kigen Zenji

Ummon asked: "The world is such a wide world, why do you answer a bell and don ceremonial robes?"
Mumon's Comment: When one studies Zen one need not follow sound or colour or form. Even though some have attained insight when hearing a voice or seeing a colour or a form, this is a very common way. It is not true Zen. The real Zen student controls sound, colour, form, and actualizes the truth in his everyday life. Sound comes to the ear, the ear goes to the sound. When you blot out sound and sense, what do you understand? While listening with ears one never can understand. To understand intimately one should see sound.

When you understand, you belong to the family;
When you do not understand, you are a stranger.
Those who do not understand belong to the family,
And when they understand they are strangers.
- a koan from The Gateless Gate by Ekai, called Mumon

Be one with the Buddha
Be one with the Dharma
Be one with the Sangha

Do not kill
Do not steal
Do not be greedy
Do not tell a lie
Do not be ignorant
Do not talk about others faults
Do not elevate yourself by criticizing others
Do not be stingy
Do not get angry
Do not speak ill of the Three Treasures

Do not commit evil
Do good
Do good for others
(Shi gu sei gan)
Shu jo muhen sei gan do
Bo no mujin sei gan dan
Ho mon muryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mujo sei gan jo
However innumerable all beings are
I vow to save them all
However inexhaustible my delusions are
I vow to extinguish them all
However immeasurable the Dharma Teachings are
I vow to master them all
However endless the Buddha's Way is
I vow to follow it completely
Shu jo muhen sei gan do
Bo no mujin sei gan dan
Ho mon muryo sei gan gaku
Butsu do mujo sei gan jo

The Soto monk and garden designer, Muso Soseki, who designed the garden at Tenryuji in the mid-1300's composed this poem:
The sounds of the streams splash out the Buddhas sermon,
Dont say that the deepest meaning comes only from ones mouth,
Day and night, 80,000 poems arise one after the other,
And in fact, not a single word has ever been spoken.

The gassho is the traditional monkly greeting used to show respect for, well, just about anyone, really. To do it, place the palms of your hands together in the position of prayer, and bow your head or whole torso in a respectful manner. You have probably seen the Dalai Lama do this - or even Mahatma Ghandi. The practice was inherited from ancient Indian culture.


A History of Japan to 1334, George Sansom, Stanford University Press, 1961 - THE source. Highly recommended.

A History of Japan 1334-1615, George Sansom, Stanford University Press, 1961 - Again, THE source. Highly recommended.

Cha-No-Yu The Japanese Tea Ceremony, A. L. Sadler, Charles E. Tuttle Co., Rutland, Vermont and Tokyo, Japan, 1962 - good overview of the basic facts of Tea, detailed descriptions, large collection of tea-related stories and historic facts.

Japanese Tales, edited and translated by Royall Tyler, Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, 1987 - concise and easy to read collection of folklore including lots of monk stories!

The Sayings of Confucius, translated by James R. Ware, Penguin Books, 1955 - one of the three great teachers well-rounded scholars and educated monks would know.

Japan: The Shaping of Daimyo Culture 1185-1868, edited by Yoskiaki Shimizu, George Braziller, Inc., New York and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1988 - big expensive coffee table book with detailed coverage of this art exhibition. Excellent facts and photos. Highly recommended.

The Tale of Genji, Lady Murasaki, translated by Arthur Waley, Random House, Inc., 1960 - one of the three great classics.

Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu, a new translation by Gia-fu Feng and Jane English, Vintage Books, 1972 - Besides the Buddha, the other of the three great teachers.

The World of the Shining Prince, Ivan Morris, Kodansha, 1964 - a companion book written to assist understanding of the world of The Tale of Genji and other mid-Heian texts. Considered a masterpiece.

The Training of the Zen Buddhist Monk, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki. Charles E. Tuttle Co., 1994. - Although it discusses experiences in a contemporary monastery, this book is a very good guide to daily life for a monk.


Zen Flesh, Zen Bones ñ a collection of Zen and pre-Zen writings, compiled by Paul Reps. Doubleday, 1989 ñ not necessarily the best introduction to Zen, but very good material and stories. As you learn about zen, more and more of this book resonates.

Entering the Stream, Compiled and edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn. Shambhala Publications, 1993.

Zen Mind, Beginners Mind, Shunryu Suzuki. Weatherhill,1970.

The Lotus Sutra, Translated by Burton Watson. Columbia University Press, 1993.

A Concise History of Buddhism, Andrew Skilton. Barnes and Noble Books, 2000.

A History of Zen Buddhism: A History, Vol. II: Japan, Heinrich Dumoulin. Macmillan Publishing Co., 1990


Name Construction in Medieval Japan, Barbara Nostrand Ph. D. (ska: Solveig Throndardottir), Potboiler Press, 1994. - a good tool for choosing a Japanese SCA name. See if you can borrow it from a herald.

Jeffrey"s E-J Dictionary: http://enterprise.dsi.crc.ca/cgi-bin/j-e/dict - my favorite on-line Japanese-English-Japanese dictionary.

Lady Fujiwara's site: www.reconstructinghistory.com - excellent garb construction information.
Master Effingham's site (An Online Japanese Miscellany): http://www.geocities.com/sengokudaimyo/Miscellany/Misc_home.html - Effingham is the SCAs most accomplished scholar on Japanese culture. Attend his Pennsic classes. Read his site. Do what he says!

Kyoto Costume Museum: http://www.iz2.or.jp/fukusyoku/busou/index.htm - this site is in Japanese only. It is an excellent reference for garb.

Disclaimer: "Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the Wise. Seek instead what they sought." - Lao Tzu
I am not a great scholar or historian. The information I present here is very basic and may contain some generalities or errors. My experience is mostly with 16th century Japan and Zen, so please forgive me if you feel other periods or cultures are under-represented. The bibliography is far from complete. Comments and suggestions are warmly appreciated. Thank you.
© Eric Munson, 2001. (SCA: Matsuyama Mokurai , OSC), eric.munson@rodale.com This paper is copyrighted. Please do not reproduce whole or in part without the permission of the author except for educational purposes.