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
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
Florendo said with the monks’ rigorous and
strict schedules, he held “plenty of initial worries,”
but they melted away by the end of the
“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.
Among 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,’’
“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.”
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
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
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.”
Special Section: UT Tyler Research
- President's Letter
- Around Campus
- Focus on: Faculty
- Focus on: Alumni
- Focus on: Benefactors
- Focus on: Athletics
- Focus on: Students
- Class Notes