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Journey of Enlightenment
Jesse Florendo Experiences Life in Japanese Monastery

Jesse Florendo shows an image of the bridge he crossed to enter the monastery. The bridge sympolizes the journey from the outside world to the world inside.

As the oldest Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, Tofukuji each year receives eager tourists who are interested in seeing the astounding place for themselves. The monastery, with its intriguing moss and rock gardens, is located just outside the beautiful city of Kyoto.

Tofukuji is more than just a residence for the monks who abide there – it is their haven for deep dedication, discipline and study of Zen Buddhism, a diverse system of spiritual beliefs that emphasizes enlightenment through a clear state of mind.

While an undergraduate at The University of Texas at Tyler, Jesse Florendo Jr. of Whitehouse gravitated to Zen Buddhism the more he studied it. Last summer, Florendo, now a graduate student, became more than just an admirer of the monks as an outsider looking in – he became one of them.

Florendo, along with Dr. Stephen Krebbs, UT Tyler senior lecturer of philosophy, traveled to the monastery, where they lived and worked as Zen Buddhist monks for about five weeks.

“The place itself and the people there were, for me, definitely out of the ordinary and not what I could imagine at all,” Florendo said. “It’s such a beautiful place.”

Since 2003, Florendo expressed interest in Japan and particularly Zen Buddhism, Dr. Krebbs said.

“Because of that interest, when I was personally invited by the Zen Roshi/Master Keido Fukushima to come to Japan to study with him, I asked Jesse if he would like to accompany me,” said Dr. Krebbs, who first taught Florendo during his freshman year in 2002.

And the trip was set.

Through a research grant, Dr. Krebbs acquired funds to return after his initial visit to Kyoto in 2005. Florendo received the trip as a gift from his father.

Living the Life
At the monastery, each day started at 3 a.m. and ended at 10:30 p.m. Sleeping about four hours per night, the monks regularly tended to the rock and moss gardens and meditated – sometimes up to 16 hours a day. They also begged for alms in and around Kyoto.

“At first, with so much routine, it was kind of boring. There was a certain way to do everything. After getting used to being there, I felt very spiritual,” Florendo said. “The homesickness that plagued me early on had left. I felt at home.”

Florendo said with the monks’ rigorous and strict schedules, he held “plenty of initial worries,” but they melted away by the end of the first week.

“Everything was regimented. Walking was even regimented. I was very content to be there,” he added. “It was peaceful though demanding. I had no real expectations of what it was going to be like because I just did not know what to expect. After a week, I was able to appreciate how different my surroundings were from what I was used to, yet how natural it felt to be there,” he added. “This was definitely not Tyler.”

Not only did Florendo live and work as a monk, he also dined as one. Their meals consisted only of rice, vegetables and noodles. “There was an order to everything, even when you could and when you couldn’t put down your chopsticks, and even how you put them down,” Florendo said. “It was very difficult at first to pick up on all the details, and I don’t think I ever got the ritual down perfect. I lost 15 pounds the first two weeks. Total, I lost about 20. There were no amenities, no mirrors. I must’ve looked horrible,” he added with a laugh.

buildingAmong other rules, meals had to be eaten within 15 minutes. Breaks could only last 30 minutes to an hour. Baths were taken on days that ended with the numbers four or nine. “At the monastery, Steve, the monks and I only bathed once a week. I ended up wearing the same clothes to meditate in for the 20 plus days I was there. We were not allowed to clean up during the day, until just before bedtime,’’ said Florendo.

“All the things I was used to doing in America were non-existent, not even possible at the monastery because of the strict, regimented routine of life there that lasted all day, every day,” added the student, who gave up his waist-length hair as well.

Florendo said his experience living as a monk was more than what he could ever learn from textbooks and lectures.

“I noticed how foreign, unknown and completely out of place I was,” he said. “I didn’t think places like the monastery could actually work in a modern world. But it was there, and it worked. It was a very different place from anywhere I’ve ever been.”

University Life
Born in the Philippines, Florendo and his family moved to the United States when he was 10 years old. He graduated from UT Tyler with a bachelor’s degree in English in May 2007 and currently works as a tutor at the UT Tyler Writing Center and an assistant manager at a local movie theater, which suits the movie buff.

Florendo, who holds a 3.66 GPA and has consistently made the president’s and dean’s lists, started the Poetry Club at the university and serves as its president. He also is president of Phi Sigma Tau, an organization of philosophy students, and a member of the UT Tyler Buddhist Student Alliance.

The 23-year-old plans to earn a doctorate degree and become a professor in English literature, philosophy or creative writing. He also hopes to become a published poet and novelist.

And without a doubt, he intends to make another trip to the monastery.

“I’m not for sure when but definitely someday,” he said of a future visit. “It’s like stepping back in time or being in a desert and finding a spiritual oasis. It’s amazing.”

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