I entered the temple for a look at the life of a Zen monk, my first glimpse in the seven years I've lived in Tokyo's neon-lighted world. Here, I tried my hand -- or foot, as it were -- at zazen, the art of Zen meditation. It stresses focusing the mind on the infinite while sitting in the limb-crunching lotus posture.
I also tried to get my mind around Zen koan, the conundrums presented by the Zen master aimed at forcing the disciple into an insight beyond conventional thinking.
Perched on a rock above the waterfall that flows into his temple's garden, John Toller, whose Zen name Sogaku means "mountain peak essence," asked me the question I had half expected from watching Zen takeoffs on "Saturday Night Live."
"When two hands clap together they make a sound . . . What is the sound that one hand makes?"
"Nothing," I said triumphantly, "it makes the sound of 'nothingness.' "
A disparaging flick of the master's bushy eyebrows. " 'Nothing' is no answer," he said shortly.
"I'll work on it," I responded.
At the stroke of 6 a.m., Toller, a Zen monk, brushed the last specks of lint from his bald pate, straightened his flowing robes and solemnly walked along the edges of the neatly combed garden of gravel in front of his mountainside temple.
A wafer of clouds skidded over the purple line of dawn as he hefted a length of timber and repeatedly struck a large bronze bell, sending a mournful peal across the valley floor to wake the villagers.
Tolling the temple bell signals the start of the priest's early morning regimen: chanting Buddhist prayers and sitting for long periods while meditating on Zen's paradoxical riddles. For hundreds of years, these rituals have been practiced daily at monasteries in old towns like this one near Nara in central Japan, the country's 8th-century capital.
But in ringing his bell, Toller has touched off reverberations far beyond his cloister's precinct. The one-time newspaperman, advertising copywriter and art collector is the first American, and probably the first non-Asian, in over 1,000 years of Japanese Zen to survive the discipline's punishing rigors and become a full-fledged temple master in this tradition-bound country.
Toller, 50, first shaved his head eight years ago to take up training for the Zen priesthood and, in so doing, entered an arcane world whose monkish rites of self-denial exist in sharp contrast to life in the mainstream of Japan's booming, consumer-oriented economy.
Zen is the most exclusive of the country's handful of Buddhist sects. It teaches its monks to renounce worldly pleasures and serve as models to lead mankind to salvation through enlightenment.
Today, three decades of blistering economic growth have helped supplant Buddhism, the religion in this once predominantly Buddhist society. And while Zen principles underpin much of Japan's tradition in poetry, painting, pottery and the martial arts, the average Japanese today is less likely to have even a passing interest in the religion than are counterparts in the United States, where its popularity began to flourish in the counterculture movements of the '50s and '60s .
The kimono-clad Toller, who rarely wears Western clothes, said he was not lured into Zen by the writings of such beat generation Zen boosters as Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg but, indirectly, by Uncle Sam. He was drafted into the army in 1954, an unwilling convert to Japanese ways.
"But after being dragged here by the nape of my neck," he explained, "I fell in love with the country." And he has lived here for the past 27 years. The bulk of his pre-Zen years in Japan was spent in Osaka translating technical materials from Japanese to English for Dentsu, today the world's largest advertising agency.
Toller, who speaks Japanese so flawlessly that he is often mistaken for a native in telephone coversations, said he became disenchanted with the Bible-thumping Baptist fundamentalism of his upbringing in Idalou, Tex. "It wasn't any sense of bereavement that got me into Zen," he explained, "I was just interested in its philosophy and thought, hell, I'd give up everything else and become a Buddhist monk."
After enduring the arduous physical labor, corporal punishment and rote learning of Buddhist canons demanded by Zen training, Toller became the Abbot of Shogenin, a newly rebuilt temple which occupies a 270-year-old manor house overlooking the terraced rice fields and vegetable plots of Ouda, a town of 10,000 tucked into the Yoshino Mountains.
Here, there are 27 rooms with tatami floors and a maze of sliding rice-paper doors which open to show asymmetrical spaces of the traditional Japanese house. There are dusky, painted screens of peacocks and ducks flecked with gold and antique scrolls showing the Buddha being tempted by worldly demons. There is also a Pioneer stereo system with its speakers hidden behind stone rubbings of the Buddhist scriptures in classical Chinese characters. It was here I was first asked the hand question.
I was not the first to comtemplate the elusive answer. It took five months and countless whacks from his master's stick, Toller said, for him to hit on the one acceptable response. Then, he was studying at the Daitokuji Monastery in Kyoto where long hours of meditation and Zen dialogue were interspersed with chopping wood, raising vegetables and cleaning the temple grounds, as the Buddhist work ethic demands.
His training also included begging trips during the bitter cold winter that he was obliged to make with other disciples through the streets of Kyoto. "We had to trudge through the snow in straw sandals," he recalled, "and had to rub our feet with oil to keep them from cracking and bleeding."
Zen employs such shock treatment to vault the acolyte beyond his physical senses and into the realm of satori, or enlightenment. "The training," Toller said, "is aimed at dispensing with the ego and that is extremely difficult. It's hard to keep your temper from flaring when you get punched in the stomach and don't know why."
Toller entered the monastery with 22 other monks, including two Americans. They were allowed outside the cloister walls only one night each year, on New Year's Eve -- and on one occasion, he recalled, "the monks got so drunk they couldn't recite the sutras the next morning." The following year the privilege was suspended, apparently the final straw that drove one of the other Americans to jump the wall and escape, he said.
"I thought many times of running away myself," Toller said, "but now I'm glad I stuck it out because I certainly wouldn't want to go back to advertising."
In the late afternoon, smoke from village chimneys rose on the crisp autumn breeze and mingled with the bluish haze of the mountains beyond. Sipping sake with his visitor from a hand-turned earthenware cup, Toller talked more about his conversion to Zen.
"When I was a child," he said, still with the hint of a Texas drawl, "it seemed to me that what the preacher was saying in the pulpit was not the same thing I was reading in the Bible. I didn't like the emotionalism in Protestantism and, later, when I started studying Buddhism it didn't seem to have any of that.
"Americans, in general, are searching for something that they don't find in modern life," he said, "and have turned to Buddhism and a lot of other things. But the way most Americans take up Zen, they concentrate on exotic things Japanese like the tea ceremony" and not on its underlying principles. "If Zen were actually practiced in the West in its true spirit, it would have to be totally changed" to fit in with a culture that vastly differs from that of Japan, he added.
Zen has already undergone a major transformation since its inception in India 25 centuries ago and its arrival in Japan from China in the 5th Century.
"The robes we now wear are essentially those of a Chinese Taoist priest," Toller explained, "with vestiges of the Indian sari and a Japanese under-kimono." Of course, "the underwear is American," he said, laughing.
In Japan, religion has taken a back seat to the nation's overwhelming preoccupation with postwar economic growth. But, in recent years, exploding prosperity has touched off a social drift back toward the spiritual among younger Japanese.
"The Japanese have now moved almost far enough away from Zen," said Toller, in the paradoxical style of the Zen master, "to see it more clearly." But he pointed out that the difficult language of the sutras, which is unintelligible to most Japanese, and the physical rigors of Zen training have kept the number of converts low.
Toller's appointment as abbot caused a stir among the Japanese who, in general, still tend to regard a foreigner's efforts to master their language and customs as quaint stabs at the impossible. Often, the response to those who do is one of polite distance and thinly veiled suspicion.
In Ouda, he initially met with a cool reception. People there are used to seeing foreigners only as models and movie actors on their television screens.
A farmer who lives up the hill from Shogenin said of Toller, "At first we were hesitant, but now we accept him just as if he were Japanese. Besides, it shows that religion can cross international boundaries."
Toller teaches English to the farmer's young daughter and a group of local schoolchildren. "The boys," he said, "don't really have much interest in learning the language, but they love to sneak up behind me and run their hands over my bald head."
Since Toller took charge of the temple 15 months ago, several thousand Japanese visitors have trooped through its gates for a glimpse at its blue-eyed master. Among them have been influential patrons ranging from local sake brewers to national political figures, on whom he counts to help pay Shogenin's way.
This summer, former prime minister Takeo Fukuda's 14-year-old grandson spent two weeks under Toller's guidance, pulling weeds and raking the Zen gravel garden. Toller receives no salary and relies on donations or the fees he charges to preside over weddings, funerals and wakes.
At 5 each morning, a digital alarm clock chimes out a tinny rendition of Mozart's Symphony No. 40 to call Toller to his discipline. After the shivering resonance of his bell has died out in the valley below, Toller kneels before the Buddhist altar amid the pungent aroma of burning incense as he chants the sutras in archaic Japanese in his resounding baritone: "Time flies like an arrow and what man should do throughout the round of the clock is to keep his mind fixed on the unfathomable and consider it in his comings and goings."
On a recent morning, after a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast, Toller led the way to the temple loft with just that in mind. In the pale light of the barren meditation hall, he and his guest sat on cushions neatly laid on the hardwood floor and crossed their legs in the prescribed posture for zazen.
Mercifully, Toller did not use the wooden cane he keeps at his side, which Zen masters use to beat their disciples about the shoulders when concentration on the infinite lags.
When he had signaled an end to the 10-minute session -- not a marathon bout by Zen standards -- he asked, "Have you got an answer to the sound that one hand makes?"
All I could think of was the sound of the flock of chickens that was staging a fierce clucking match in the neighbor's yard and, of course, my painfully contorted lower limbs.
"Okay," he said, "let's make it easier. In one short sentence tell me what sound rain makes."
A Zen-like flash of inspiration. "Rain," I roared with delight, "it makes the sound of rain."
And the sound of one hand? "Why, it makes the sound that one hand makes," I said, dwelling on the obvious.
"Good," Sogaku said with a shrewd smile, "now you can get started on the 2,000 other more difficult koan."