A Look at Rinzai Zen Monastic Life

A while back, I wrote a post that reviewed a certain bilingual Zen book I purchased in Japan called What is Zen? 禅ってなんだろう?. by Rev. Fujiwara.

One aspect of the book that is discussed in detail, but I did not have time to explore in my last post was the subject of monasticism in Rinzai Zen sect. This post does not cover Soto Zen which was outside the scope of the book. Aspects of Rinzai Zen monasticism may have common features with other monastic institutions in Buddhism, and other aspects may differ.

To sum up, Rinzai Zen monasticism is highly regulated and intensive. As Rev. Fujiwara explains:

There are rules regulating every action in the sōdō [monks’ hall 僧堂], from the way you pick up and put down your chopsticks to the way you take off sandals. When people who are accustomed to the freedom of ordinary life face this situation, they feel terribly restricted. It’s difficult to get used to the regimen, and they often break the rules and are scolded by senior novices. But gradually they adapt and are able to carry out their duties as a novice efficiently and correctly. Strangely, in spite of all the tension, one feels a refreshing vigor. (pg. 53)

and later:

As we review these regulations of the monks’ hall, their meaning becomes clear. In other words, by regulating one’s behavior, one’s mind is also regulated. The Zen patriarchs were well aware of this. Moreover, the regulations enable Zen monks to concentrate at all times on sanzen [参禅]. (pg. 59)

But let’s look in further detail.

Becoming a monk

As Rev. Fujiwara explains, to become a monk, one must first become a disciple of the head-priest at a Rinzai temple, and eventually undergo the first ordination ceremony or tokudo shiki (得度式). Your head is shaved except a small bit the day before, and then on the day of the ceremony, this last bit is shaved off. Then one prostrates before the Buddha, parents, the Emperor and teacher since they have all cared for him until now. One then receives a “Zen name” and receives the basic tools of a monk: robe, begging bowl, Zen liturgy, etc.

One then makes a confession disavowing all the harmful, unskillful acts one has committed in the past, and one formally takes refuge in the Three Treasures. One is now a shami (沙弥) or novice disciple in Japanese Buddhism. However, in order to progress beyond the beginning stage, one must undergo further training and for that one must journey to a dedicated monastic training hall in the Rinzai tradition called a sōdō (僧堂) carrying only the barest essentials and a letter of permission from your teacher.

In the Rinzai tradition in particular, there is a tradition of refusing the disciple’s request at a training hall for three days called niwazume (庭詰). As Rev. Fujiwara explains: “If the postulant gives up at this stage, he will never be accepted into any temple. (pg. 45)” One has to simply wait at the temple steps prostrate oneself until admitted in.

If you are admitted in, one must then prove their determination by sitting in meditation from morning until night in a process called tangazume (旦過詰) in a very small room for two to four days. Then, one’s efforts are recognized and one is admitted to the monastery at last. One makes a token donation (about ¥1000 which is about $10) called shōkenkō (相見香) and interviews with the Zen master of the temple or shiké (師家) over tea before the real regimen begins.

Daily Life

The author states in the book that he is speaking of his own experience at Tōfukuji Temple in Kyoto and that the particular regimen may not be reflected in other temples. According to the author, the practices of Rinzai Zen monastic life are often divided by times and seasons, so that there are periods of intensive practice and periods that are less strenuous to allow for recovery. As Rev. Fujiwara writes:

During this “rest period,” the monks meet with the master once daily, in the morning, for sanzen, a private interview during which the master tests the monks understanding of his kōan. During the day they engage in manual labor, called samu[作務]. They only engage in meditation in the evenings, when they meditate facing the walls in a practice called menpeki (面壁). (pg. 47)

I think this is an important point, since people assume they can escape to a Zen monastery to have more time for meditation, when in fact meditation is only a part of the much broader monastic life. It’s not a vacation in other words, one is committing oneself to be a disciple and work daily for the good of the community, not one’s own peace of mind. I remember reading Ajahn Chah’s book a while back, when he talked about an American disciple in his Thai monastery who insisted on wandering off to meditate instead of attending group meetings like everyone else. Ven. Ajahn Chah didn’t say ‘no’, but would make big deal of it in front of everyone until the disciple finally understood and started attending meetings like everyone. A disciple works for everyone’s benefit, not just their own, even when it seemingly runs counter to what people expect from Buddhist monks. The problem is that one’s ego, and sense of individual identity may get in the way at first, thus both in Thailand and in Japanese Zen monasteries (among other places), one is trained to let go of one’s ego through honest labor.

Getting back to the routine, Rev. Fujiwara explains that the disciples awake at 3:30am in summer or 4:30 in winter and must get ready with great haste to get dressed and fold up their bedding, get cleaned up and ready. From there, they take part in communal sutra recitation or chōka (朝課) and eat a very light meal (more on that below), then a private interview with the Zen master (shiké). As it is now daybreak, one works to silently clean up the monastery grounds, continuing to focus on solving their kōan.

Depending on the day of the month, monks may either:

  • Go out in a group to beg for alms, or takuhatsu (托鉢). This is usually restricted to a group of three monks only.
  • Attend a lecture, or teishō (提唱).
  • Clean the monastery, repair robes, shave their heads and bathe.

After lunch, there is a noon rest period for sleeping meditation, or zasui (座睡) while the afternoon is spent engaging in their assigned manual labor. This can include chopping wood, cleaning the latrines, weeding, etc. Evening is spent again reciting the sutras, or banka (晩課), and for dinner they consume any leftover food from earlier in the day as oppose to another meal. At last, deep in the night, they spend their time engaged in meditation in the meditation hall, resisting the urge to sleep.

From there, they engage in further meditation outside or yaza (夜座) both in winter and summer. From there, monks file out in order of seniority, such that the novices go last. As Rev. Fujiwara explains, the average sleep allowed is three hours.

During periods of sesshin (摂心), one undergoes more intensive meditation practice (since manual labor has been taken care of during restful periods mentioned above). The big sesshin, called rōhatsu (臘八) or rōhatsu daisesshin (臘八大摂心) is described by Rev. Fujiwara as the “novice killer” (his words, not mine) because from December 1st to December 8th, disciples engage in non-stop meditation without any sleep for the entire period. This culminates with Bodhi Day, the Day the Buddha is said to have become enlightened according to tradition.


Food is an important topic in Rinzai Zen monastic life. In keeping with the Buddhist monastic tradition regarding food, Rinzai Zen temples serve the disciples food that does not come from harming or taking life. This is called fusseshōkai (不殺生戒) in Japanese Buddhism. As Rev. Fujiwara explains, disciples must still take plant life, so over meals, they say a kind of Buddhist “grace” to express repentance and gratitude. For practical purposes, he also explains that “moreover, meat is too energy rich, making it hard to control your body and mind.” He states that barley and unpolished rice are easier to digest over long periods of sitting meditation, and are consumed instead.

The morning meal mentioned earlier, the meal usually consists of rice porridge and pickled vegetables, while the midday meal consists of rice and barley (three parts rice to seven parts barley as Rev. Fujiwara explains) and miso soup.


As stated before, there is much here that may resonate with other Buddhist monastic traditions, and some things are uniquely Japanese or to Rinzai Zen in particular. The purpose of this post wasn’t to scare people off, but to help deflate the idyllic fantasy of a quiet Zen retreat when your life becomes difficult.1 When one undertakes the monastic vows, one becomes a “professional” Buddhist in a sense, and devotes one’s time and energy to support and accomplish this work. The rewards are extraordinary, but one should be careful not to trivialize the task either. 😉

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. A newer post on Zen monastic life from a Korean perspective.

1 A good reminder that there’s no real retreat from life, so better to practice and cultivate wisdom here and now. Make the most of what you have here and now.

About Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

5 thoughts on “A Look at Rinzai Zen Monastic Life

  1. Nice post. Most of the information was sort of what I expected but enjoyed the play-by-play. What was really surprising was this…

    “They only engage in meditation in the evenings, when they meditate facing the walls in a practice called menpeki”

    It was always my understanding that Rinzai faced each other in group meditation while Soto faced the wall. Of course my understanding only goes so far…or so I am told.


  2. Hmm, yes I’m puzzled by the facing the walls thing too as my teacher spent some time training in Rinzai temples and certainly learnt to sit facing into the room. I guess it is an idiosyncracy of the temple in question. Doug did write: “The author states in the book that he is speaking of his own experience at Tōfukuji Temple in Kyoto and that the particular regimen may not be reflected in other temples. “

  3. Hi guys, yeah I have to agree I was a bit puzzled too, but then again I have 0 experience in any Zen temple, so I only know things by hearsay or what’s read. :-p

  4. Not a Zen guy but… There is an excellent essay by
    Morinaga Soko in the book Zen – Tradition and Transition, edited by
    Kenneth Kraft, named “My Struggle to become a monk”. Over 15 or so
    pages the author chronicles his struggles, until right near the end
    he mentions the word zazen – “I put my bunko down and sat in zazen
    facing the wall, which is all I could see. As anyone may be looking
    in from the other three sides I could not relax for a moment.” This
    was at Daitokuji. And that was his only mention of Zazen. One line,
    all the rest was the important stuff that rarely finds its way into
    print because it is cleaning and preparing a bath and other mundane
    things, which in the temple life I have seen is where things are
    learned. Anyway it is a reccomendation. Loved the post,

  5. Hi Rev. Stephen,

    Any idea where one can get a hold of that essay? I’d be curious to read it. Anyway, like you said, it’s experiences of real monks that help deflate the romanticized notion of Zen and monasteries, but also bring to life what really goes on both the struggles and the joys, and like you said, is where learning begins. We Buddhist converts as a whole still get fixated on the physical, sitting practice of meditation, while ignoring the greater picture at times. No one I know in particular, just making a point. :)

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