People often ask me how they can join a Zen monastery in Japan just like I did.
First off, I never joined a Zen monastery in Japan. I lived in Japan for eleven years. For ten of those years I worked full-time at Tsuburaya Productions, the company that makes Ultraman. For my first year in Japan I worked as an assistant English teacher at Takaoka Koryo High School.
I never lived full-time at a Zen monastery. My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, advised me against it.
In Japan, Zen temples are all over the place. They’re like churches in the West. You’ll find a Buddhist temple of some sort in almost every neighborhood and a lot of those are Zen temples. There is also a smaller number of monasteries, including famous ones like Eihei-ji and Soji-ji.
Monasteries are different from temples. Monasteries train monks who live there full-time. Temples are usually run by a priest and his/her family, although they may also employ a small number of other monks if it’s a bigger temple. Temples don’t train monks.
Most Japanese Zen monasteries don’t categorically refuse monks from other countries. But, in practice, it’s very difficult for foreign monks to join them. You’d need to have a strong recommendation from someone known to the monastery before you’d even be considered.
Also, before you even consider joining a Japanese Zen monastery the first thing you’ll need to do is learn Japanese.
This is essential. If you cannot speak at least conversational level Japanese and read basic Japanese, forget it. These monasteries are not set up to deal with foreigners. There will be no translations of dharma talks. And, more importantly, all the basic instructions for everything will be in Japanese.
Also, you’ll need to have a strong understanding of Japanese culture. You’ll need to be comfortable with the Japanese systems of social hierarchy. In Zen monasteries, hierarchies are strictly observed and enforced. Even where you put your slippers when you leave them outside to enter the zendo is a matter of hierarchy. If you put them in the wrong spot, you’re showing disrespect to your superiors and you’ll be chewed out for it.
Plus, you’d better have a good deal of experience in Zen before you enter a monastery. They don’t offer on-the-job training. You’ll be expected to know the basics of the practice and philosophy and be experienced sitting longer retreats before you get there. They won’t show you how to sit or when to bow. They’ll just yell at you (or even hit you) if you do it wrong.
I would suggest reading the book Eat Sleep Sit by Kaoru Nonomura before you make your decision. Nonomura spent a year at Eihei-ji and his book goes into great detail about what happens there. In particular, this passage regarding monastic hierarchies would be helpful. The hierarchical stuff is often very hard for non-Japanese people to deal with. If you think you’ll have problems with it, it’s best not to join a Japanese monastery.
The only Zen monastery in Japan I know of that is comparatively easy for Westerners to join is Antai-ji.* But even they require you to know basic Japanese. They also require you to make a commitment to stay there at least three years. Plus you must be strong enough to handle the hard physical labor needed to keep the monastery running. There may be other monasteries in Japan that accept foreigners. But they are very rare.
You’d be far better off joining one of the Zen monasteries in the US or Europe, such as Tassajara in California or Zen Mountain Monastery in New York. Their requirements are also strict, but not as strict as a Japanese monastery. You can ask them directly about their requirements.
Even finding a Zen teacher in Japan is pretty tricky. Most Zen priests and monks in Japan are not teachers. They might be nice enough to talk to you about Zen (in Japanese usually!). But they’re not in the business of teaching Zen. Their job is to oversee their temple, not train new monks.
In short, you’re better off staying in the country you live in and looking for a teacher there than moving to Japan to join a monastery.
*ADDENDUM: After I uploaded this article, some people wrote to tell me that Tosho-ji monastery in Japan also accepts non-Japanese students. They said that the nice folks at Tosho-ji even sometimes provide English translations and allow lay-people to join the monks’ practice there.