One of my perennial frustrations is that I can’t just sit down in the corner of a coffee shop, music bar, or train car and write. My friend Cody told me once that he could write just fine with music and other noises in the background, and that he even in fact preferred it—but this is sorcery I’ve never understood, though I admit I’m envious. I need quiet places to do my writing. Though sounds from nature are fine—singing birds, trickling water, wind in the trees—I have a hard time focusing around human voices and artificial sound. So when I first moved to the seaside town of Ichinomiya in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, one of the first things I did was scout out quiet, tranquil places in which to write (My apartment is fine, but sometimes I just really need to get out).
To my delight and good fortune, I happened upon Touzen-ji, a beautiful 400-year-old temple tucked away in the wooded hills west of town, overlooking rice paddies and pear groves. The temple was home to a friendly Zen monk and his family*, who were eager to meet me, practice English with me, and show me around.
“This place is beautiful,” I said as I looked around inside the main hall, with its great wooden pillars, painted ceilings, and carved statues. “Would it be okay if I visited now and then to do some writing here? It seems like the perfect place to sit and think.”
In truth, I wasn’t sure I ought to ask. Was it presumptuous of me? Here I was, not even a Buddhist, asking if I could borrow this ancient prayer hall as an occasional retreat to work on my writing. But to my joy and gratitude, the monk’s family invited me not only to come by once a week to write in the temple, but to join them for dinner and conversation afterward as well.
It is now routine: Once a week I stop by Touzen-ji, write for an hour or so in the temple hall, and then join the monk and his family for dinner. We share many similar interests—history, international politics, economics, and of course religion and philosophy. It’s an incredible blessing and opportunity, to sit with them at the table and hear all those subjects familiar to me discussed anew through a Japanese Buddhist paradigm. If I were a terrible man, I would make a pun about it all being very enlightening.
But I am not, so I won’t.
(*In Japan, particularly in the modern era, Buddhist monks are permitted to marry and have families. The current monk at Touzen-ji is the third generation of his family to manage the temple.)