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Life at Antaiji

By Colin on 2023-07-11

There are many worlds on this one planet. I spent the last week in one; a Zen temple called 安泰寺 (Antaiji) in the mountains of 兵庫 (Hyō-go) Prefecture. Antaiji offers three retreats per year for people interested in 坐禅 (Zazen - Zen meditation), although the retreats themselves are not just for meditation. You live as the monks live, following their five-day periodic schedule, waking when they do, eating as they do, sitting Zazen as they do, and sweating in the sun pulling weeds as they do. Antaiji is entirely self-sufficient. They produce everything they need for their survival by themselves, meaning that physical labour makes up a good portion of their day. Much of the rest is devoted to Zazen. Somewhere in between is squeezed leisure time and sleep.

I had the privilege of experiencing this lifestyle first-hand, and here is what I saw.

Schedules and Seasons

The monks live in five-day cycles.

Everyone wakes up at 3:45 every morning. One of the monks runs loudly up and down the wooden halls ringing a handbell, and there is no sleeping through it. Morning meditation starts in the 本堂 (Hondō, main hall) at 4:00 and lasts two hours. There is a 10-minute stretching session after the first hour. At 6:00, we head directly to breakfast which has been miraculously produced by the 典座 (Tenzo), the head cook for the current cycle. (Meals themselves are described in another section below.) From about 6:45 starts the temple cleaning, followed by 作務 (Samu, "work") from 7:30. There's a short break at 9:30, and then Samu continues until noon. After lunch Samu continues until 15:00, where there is a chance to bathe. 薬石 (Yakuseki, dinner) is at 17:00, and evening Zazen runs from 18:00 to 20:00. You basically need to sleep by 20:30 or the next day will not be pleasant. And besides, it's pitch black out by then, so there's not much to do.

Three days are spent like this. The fourth is a 接心 (Sesshin) day, where the monks sit ten 45-minute Zazen sessions in a row with 行経 (Kinhin, walking meditation) in between, and only a short break for breakfast at 9:00. We also did this, and made it through to the end. The final day is 放参 (Hōsan, a day off) where there is no Zazen and no physical labour. Then the cycle repeats.

The first cycle of every month, however, is a 5-day Sesshin marathon. In these, they sit not ten but fifteen Zazen sessions per day. It sounds like a lot, but according to the monks the long sits get better with time.

So, six 5-day "weeks" per month for each month of the year. Weekdays and weekends do not really apply to the monks, and we too soon lost our sense of what day it was.

In July and August the monks alternate taking 10-day holidays. This gives them a chance to visit relatives and take care of "worldly" tasks like paying for health insurance and visiting the dentist. Since they have no salary as monks, they raise the money for such expenses in November and spring by doing 托鉢 (Takuhatsu, begging), as is traditional for monks in many lands and eras. In winter they are snowed in. By that point they've harvested all the food they need, which needs to last until summer when spring's planting is finally grown. One monk mentioned that winter has a reputation of being a time of little food, but in reality it's when they've stock-piled the most, and the Tenzo has to work hard to use it all before it goes bad. Naturally though, they plant a lot of hardy vegetables that don't easily spoil. By the end of spring they're often foraging the mountains for 山菜 (Sansai, wild mountain vegetables) to fill out their diet. They're at no risk of starving though, as they have rice stored in abundance and, to our surprise, deer meat.

The snow piles high in winter; they're mostly unable to leave. Every ten days a few of them don traditional snowshoes and hike down to the nearest village where they have an arrangement with a local to collect mail on their behalf. The round-trip takes several hours. Because they can't work the fields, winter is mostly for study. They pick a research topic, write an essay, present it, and discuss their interpretations. They also study parts of the 正法眼蔵 (Shōbōgenzō, the 95-chapter Zen Buddhism series by 道元 [Dōgen]) as a group. Then the snow melts and it's back to work.

Zazen - Meditation

Normal days have four hours of Zazen, two each in the morning and evening. You might be barely conscious while walking to the Hondō at four in the morning, but it barely matters because after everyone sits and the starting bell sounds thrice, all lights are extinguished and you're thrust into darkness. Since Zazen is done with eyes open, you spend the next two hours slowly watching the room brighten. Different birds start their songs at different times, and the night bugs trade places with the day ones. Before you know it, the ending bell rings and it's breakfast time.

Antaiji in particular does a 10-minute stretching session at 5:00. It really helps get one through the second hour. At the end of the morning session, the following お経 (okyō, sutra) is recited three times:





This is the 塔袈裟偈(たっけさげ). Another name is 袈裟頂戴の偈 (けさちょうだいのげ).

In terms of how to sit Zazen, we were told two things clearly:

  1. Keep your back straight with your hips pushed back.
  2. Don't move.

Otherwise, we sit facing the wall on special cushions, and what comes to mind comes to mind.

Food and Meals

Zen monks eat with a special set of bowls and utensils called 応量器 (Ōryōki). They taught us to use, clean, and bundle these in the same way they do. Meals are taken in silence, and they generally aim to finish eating at the same time. Everyone sits 正座 (Seiza, "proper sitting") during the meal.

Before eating begins, the following is chanted:





And after:





The meals themselves only take about twenty minutes. You're allowed to get seconds of rice and miso soup, but only once about halfway through when everyone has signalled they're ready. This is done by placing the chopsticks diagonally across the miso bowl. Pots are already on the tables as well, and people seated closer to them are expected to help serve those who aren't.

To us who are used to a "city diet", it seems that the monks eat very little and that we were being served hardly anything; brown rice, a shallow bowl of miso, and two small side dishes. But you'd be surprised how far that goes, despite the physical labour of Samu. We're encouraged to eat slowly and deliberately, picking up each plate one at a time and eating directly from it. This is different from the usual style of Japanese eating, where one often has a rice bowl fixed in one hand, while the chopsticks hover from dish to dish and lift food to the mouth from there. Likewise, the monks don't mix different foods in the mouth. You eat one thing at a time. Although there is a general pressure to finish the meal quickly, eating this way naturally slows you down and you spend a lot of time chewing. In a way, this stretches out your seemingly small portion. I never finished a meal feeling unsatisfied.

Recall too that after dinner is the evening Zazen followed by sleep, so why stuff yourself?

Everyone cleans their own Ōryōki at the table in a three-step process. First, a piece of small 漬物 (Tsukemono, a pickled vegetable, often Daikon) is placed in each bowl. Since of course you've already eaten every noticeable speck of food from your bowls, you wipe the Tsukemono around the bowl with your chopsticks to loosen up any remaining food residues. For saucy dishes, this helps you gather the sauce in one place to drink up. The Tsukemono wiping isn't perfect, but my guess is that the acid in the pickling has a disinfecting effect on the bowls.

Next, a small kettle is passed around. Hot water (not too much) is poured into the rice bowl, and you use an お刷 (Osetsu, a flat stick clothed on one end) to clean it. Upon cleaning one bowl, you pour the water into the next largest one, dry the first with a white cloth, and repeat the process. Our sets had three bowls.

Lastly, each bowl is stacked together and wrapped in a larger, coloured cloth. The chopsticks and Osetsu are added, and the whole stack is tied together. Once everyone is done, a final standing bow is done, and the Ōryōki sets are carried away in pairs to a shelf.

Dinners are followed by a Tea Meeting, where the progress of the day's Samu is reported, and the plans for the next day are announced. There is tea too of course, which is drank in unison in three sips, matching the speed of the 住職 (Jūshoku, the head monk).


The Buddhist Precepts mandate one not to kill. It has been a matter of disagreement between schools of Buddhism over time whether or not this forbids Buddhists from eating meat. Either way, the monks of Antaiji do. After spending an afternoon skinning a deer together, I asked a monk how this relates to the idea of non-killing. He offered this (translated and paraphrased):

It's a matter of balancing ideals with living in reality. We do a lot of hard, physical labour, and we need protein. In the past the temple used to purchase 大豆 (Daizu, soy beans) for protein, but that costs precious money and we have no 檀家 (Danka, temple parishioners). Instead, we accept deer donations. Deer in this area are overpopulated and kept in check by local hunters. The villagers were never interested in the meat though, and used to just dispose of the carcasses as-is. At some point they offered to donate the deer instead, and we accepted.

The meat donations help a lot during the winter months. So while it might not be the monks' preference to eat meat, they admit it a necessity of their lifestyle.

Samu - Work

Samu begins after the morning cleaning and is a representation of Zazen in one's daily duties. The monks of Antaiji grow all of their own food, so there is a lot to do. They have three rice paddies and several other vegetable fields. We helped them pick potatoes and carrots, as well as weed other patches, tie up some lazy tomatoes, and plant soy beans. The participants who came back from "rice field duty" were covered in mud; they had been weeding in the paddy waters all day.

All cooking is done by firewood, so there is always wood to be chopped into forearm-length pieces for the stoves. I spent a day doing that and splitting larger cedar trunk pieces in the "wood barn". The monks occasionally search the mountains for fallen trees, which they cut up a haul back to be dried for several years before splitting for use. Small pieces and other scraps are sifting into sawdust to be used for the toilets. No, the monks do not have the privilege of flush toilets, and they use excrement for fertilizer.

Each monk is assigned certain main responsibilities for the season, like care of the various fields, the herb patch, or the Zen Garden. Separate from these are weekly rotating positions, perhaps the most important of which is the Tenzo, the cook. The Tenzo wakes at 3:00 and must have the meals prepared by 6:00. They basically spend all day cooking, and are also in charge of heating the bath water. They're able to sit some of the Sesshin, but not most of it. The Tenzo has special wooden mallets that are knocked together before meals to signal to everyone out working to return to the main hall. They're quite loud and can be heard from far away. Even so, the monks themselves all wear simple watches so lunchtime is never a surprise. While the main cooking is done by firewood, they have otherwise allowed themselves a few conveniences like rice cookers, a fridge, and running water. The water is drawn from a dam in the mountains that was constructed by the founding monks decades ago.


To be elaborated on later.

The Character of the Monks

A rough calculation puts their total yearly meditation time at over 2000 hours. As expected, that much meditation seems to transform a human mind. They aren't excitable or nervous, nor are they phased by the giant Sparrow Hornets that fly into the meditation hall from time to time. They speak calmly and are quite orderly.

One of the foundational ideas of Buddhism is that of "The Middle Way", and I felt that idea through this advice from one of the monks:

You can't please everyone; make sure to take care of yourself. Doing so will eventually translate to helping others.



  • 作務・さむ
    • Samu - A Buddhist term for physical labour and other work duties.
  • 坐禅
    • Zazen - Zen meditation. For Sōtō Zen buddhists, this means the practice of "just sitting".
  • 行経・きんひん
    • Kinhin - Slow walking meditation.
  • 接心・せっしん
    • Sesshin - Day-long meditation sessions split into 10 (or 15) 45-minute sitting sessions. Separated by 15-minute "walking meditation". No one speaks during this time.
  • 只管打坐・しかんたざ
    • Shikantaza - "Just sitting". Meditation for its own sake without any expectation of gain or hope for enlightenment. Meditation without any "focus" or imagery as used in some other sects/traditions.
  • 正法眼蔵・しょうぼうげんぞう
    • Shōbōgenzō - The 95-chapter essay series on Buddhism by Dōgen.
  • 典座・てんぞ
    • Tenzo - The cook for the current 5-day cycle. Also in charge of managing the bath water. As far as I could tell, the Tenzo wakes up at 3 a.m.
  • 薬石・やくせき
    • Yakuseki - lit. "medicine rock". A Zen Buddhist term for dinner. In the past monks were forbidden from eating past noon, but eventually Yakuseki was invented and thought of as a "medicine" to fuel one's Zen practice.
  • 応量器・おうりょうき
    • Ōryōki - lit. "containers of appropriate volume". A personal set of bowls and utentils.
  • 本堂・ほんどう
    • Hondō - The main hall of the temple where meditation occurs. A statue of the Buddha watches over the practitioners from the central alcove.
  • 住職・じゅうしょく
    • Jūshoku - The head monk of a temple.
  • 放参・ほうさん
    • Hōsan - A day off. Originally meant a day where no villagers would come for group meditations and services.
  • 托鉢・たくはつ
    • Takuhatsu - Public begging for food and money. The monks often recite sutras while doing so.
  • 檀家・だんか
    • Danka - A temple's parishioners. In most sects of Japanese Buddhism, this means a family grave is administered by the temple for a fee. It is the Japanese tradition to cremate the deceased and intern their ashes in the family grave.
  • 衆生・しゅじょう
    • Shujō - All living beings.
  • 雀蜂・すずめばち
    • A giant Japanese hornet. About three times larger than a North American wasp. Sounds like a helicopter when it's anywhere near you. Radiates evil (in my opinion).


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