It was 1970 and I was at Ryutakuji for a year of Zen practice. Although I had been sitting for some time, the rigors of Japanese monastic life were formidable. The austere and simple diet often left me hungry and many pounds lighter. The zendo was warm and mosquito-ridden during the summer months, and chilly with a damp cold during the winter.

But still, Ryutakuji was an extraordinary place in which to practice. Located in a mountain valley outside the village of Mishima, it was nestled in a protective forest of ancient cryptomeria trees. The only distraction was the exquisite beauty of the place.

Although I was not a monk, I lived in the zendo and followed the monks' routines, with minor exceptions. I did not, for example, go on takuhatsu – the begging trips.

I did not see a whole lot of Soen Roshi that year, but he seems to have kept a discrete eye out for me – just to be sure the foreign student was managing okay. Occasionally, he would invite me to go along with him when he made a trip to visit one of the temple's patrons or some personal friend. These visits almost always included a wonderful Japanese meal, and they were welcome breaks in my monastic diet.

On one of these occasions, we found ourselves walking along a narrow residential street in some village. In Japan, houses have high fences or walls around them to afford privacy. As we were strolling along, we passed an open gate and caught a glimpse of a beautiful garden behind the wall. Soen Roshi stopped momentarily, and then silently motioned me to step through the gate. Once inside, we carefully walked the stepping stone path through the garden and back to the gate. All was silent except for the water trickling into a small pond.

Once back at the gate, and just as we turned to leave, the Roshi's attention was drawn to the genkan, or entrance, to the house just inside the gateway. It is in the genkan that one removes one's shoes before entering a Japanese house. There, in the genkan, were eight to ten pairs of shoes left in disarray – as if a group of visitors had arrived and hurriedly kicked them off. The Roshi went over to the shoes and carefully arranged them, putting pairs together and facing them so they could be stepped into when their owners were ready to leave. I stood and watched. After we had stepped back outside the gate into the street, Roshi turned to me and said, "This is our payment for appreciating the garden!"

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