American Zen practitioner David Chadwick went to Japan in 1988, lived in a monastery for six weeks, taught English for two years, then went home and wrote a book. His description of monastic life is a fascinating account of a world about which little is written in English, the rest of his life less so. Chronicles of language teachers in Japan fill the cut-out bins of discount book sellers.
There have been some small changes in the twenty years since Chadwick trained at Shogoji, a Soto Zen temple in Kumamoto prefecture (which the author makes a thin attempt to veil by changing the name to Hogoji). A sodo (a dedicated mediation hall) and shuryo (study hall) have been added, and cooking is now done with gas instead of wood. But otherwise life on the mountain remains much the same. There is still no electricity, the kitchen is dangerously dark, poisonous centipedes are hunted with murderous intent, and practice remains remarkably sterile.
One of Chadwick's Zen mates, an American monk with a decade of Japanese Zen experience, confides that “the purpose of training in Japanese Zen temples isn't to help you along the path to enlightenment – it is to cultivate you into a refined and obedient Japanese priest for Japanese temples.” Having attended the 2008 training at Shogoji, this reviewer can verify that the purpose of the training remains precisely the same. (See my entries here on the 2008 Shogoji Ango.)
Chadwick's memory of an incident at the San Francisco Zen center is particularly revealing of the decline in Zen training. A gathering of senior American priests requested Katagiri-sensei, an important player in the introduction of Japanese Zen to the United States, teach them how to do dokusan, the practice of private interviews with students. Katagiri-sensei said he couldn't help them. That he had never been taught himself. That his teachers never taught dharma. They would have to figure it out for themselves, as he had.
There's certainly something to be said for being the source of your own enlightenment. The Buddha said as much in his parting message. But where, then, is the need for temples and priests?