Dr. Stephen Krebbs, senior lecturer in philosophy at The University of Texas at Tyler, and UT Tyler graduate student Jesse Florendo of Whitehouse spent approximately five weeks in Japan this past summer, where they experienced first hand the life of a priest in a Zen Buddhist monastery.
Both Krebbs and Florendo stayed as special guests of the Zen Master at Tofukuji, which is the oldest Rinzai Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan. It is located just outside the city of Kyoto. They shaved their heads and donned the lifestyle of a monk, including receiving five hours of sleep per night, tending to the rock and moss gardens at the monastery and the last week meditating approximately 16 hours a day.
“Just sitting and thinking about nothing, it sounds pretty simple, but it’s the hardest part of living in a Zen monastery,” said Krebbs. “We wanted to be treated just like the other monks. Our days would start at 3 a.m. and end at 10:15 p.m. Every morning we had chores to do. We only had about 12 to 15 minutes to eat meals. It was quite an experience.”
Krebbs said his desire to go was sparked by an aspiration early in his life.
“I always had an interest in Eastern philosophy, in particular, Buddhism,” Krebbs said. “Last summer, I participated in a post graduate seminar in Japan, where I met the Zen Master at the monastery. I teasingly asked him, ‘Where were you when I was 19,’ because at that time, I had moved to California with the intent of moving to Japan to become a Buddhist priest.
" He said, ‘If you want to continue study, come back. I’ll be your teacher.’ I thought, ‘Well that was a nice thing to say, and I asked him, ‘Are you serious?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’”
Through a research grant, Krebbs found funds to go back, while his student of five years, Florendo, received the trip as a graduation present from his father.
“Jesse told me he would like to visit a Japan monastery and spend some time there, and I told him I had an opportunity to study with the Zen Master, who said it was fine for Jesse to come with me,” Krebbs said.
Florendo, who is currently working on a master’s degree in English, said the experience was tough, but enjoyable.
“At first, with so much routine, it was kind of boring. There was a certain way to do everything. After two weeks though, I got used to it, and I became surprisingly happy,” Florendo said.
Other rules and routine duties included breaks that only lasted between 30 minutes and an hour, and baths could only be taken on days that ended on a four or a nine. The diet was all vegetarian. Florendo and Krebbs lost a considerable amount of weight.
“I lost 15 pounds the first two weeks. Total, I lost about 20. There were no amenities, no mirrors. I must’ve looked horrible,” Florendo laughed.
“I lost 35 pounds in three weeks,” Krebbs added. “We didn’t lose weight for want of something to eat, but basically all we were eating was rice or noodles. Needless to say, I found 10 of them (pounds) when I returned to Tyler.”
Both Krebbs and Florendo said they would like to visit again.
Krebbs has been a UT Tyler faculty member since 1982. Florendo graduated with an undergraduate degree from UT Tyler this past May and currently works in the UT Tyler Writing Center.
One of the 15 campuses of the UT System, UT Tyler offers excellence in teaching, research, artistic performance and community service. More than 70 undergraduate and graduate degrees are available at UT Tyler, which has an enrollment of more than 6,000 high-ability students at its campuses in Tyler, Longview and Palestine.