A Modern Monk in Tokyo
In a three-story home tucked deep in the winding alleys of Tokyo’s Asagaya neighborhood, a young woman sits silently on cushioned tatami in a paper-walled room.
Chimes of subway doors opening and closing, rattling of train cars on tracks, humming of cars speeding down highways; the city that never stops can’t penetrate her sanctuary of empty space, sound, and mind.
It takes discipline to keep to a regular meditation practice, let alone a practice paving the way to enlightenment. And this is especially true in the world’s largest metropolis.
Gen Lotchana is a ordained monk of the Kadampa meditation tradition. She was born in France and raised in Japan. She then lived in France for 29 years before moving back to open Japan’s first Kadampa meditation center in Asagaya one year ago.
On my last trip to Tokyo, Lotchana showed me around. The center is light and airy, equipped with all the modern Japanese comforts. Smooth sandy wood floors and furniture are accentuated with green plants, tea packets arranged in neat rows, and books on meditation. Bedrooms take the third floor, dining and meditation rooms occupy the second, and a large teaching room and altar are found on the ground level.
Based on Japan’s spiritual history, I thought it would be the perfect place to find interested participants. But Lotchana admits that building a community has been exceedingly difficult.
“Japanese Buddhist practices are very different from what I’m teaching,” she says. She sits on a chair near the altar, wrapped in maroon and yellow robes, her hair buzzed short, her face freckled, her eyes calm but twinkling. “People think they already know what meditation is because they grew up familiar with Japanese Buddhism. No one asks questions, the practice is harder to fit into everyday life. People think they already know it won’t work for them.”
Lotchana is trying to stand apart from preconceived notions about meditation in Japan. According to her, Kadampa meditation is compatible with the pressures of hectic modern lifestyles. Kadampa monks don’t affiliate with organized religions, cults, or politics. And students need not renounce or even distance themselves from their current lives.
“I’m not going to say, ‘Quit your job,’ or ‘Leave your husband’. These are externalities, external to what needs to change inside.”
While many aspects of Japanese culture—gardens, martial arts, tea ceremonies—express meditative principles, modern Japanese cities are some of the hardest places to develop a practice. Tokyo is a breeding ground for distractions. Lotchana herself is all too familiar with modern work and play. She built a career in fashion for nearly two decades before she started training as a holistic therapist and finally became an ordained monk.
But she’s now figuring out how to pair distractions with meditation to attract students. If Kadampa is compatible with modern life, she’ll make the goodies of life compatible with Kadampa. She recently held a “Meditation and Raw Sweets” day in partnership with a neighborhood bakery. It was one of her most successful sessions. She also cooks every day to get students to show up.
“I don’t care about cooking,” she says, wiping her brow with a sigh. “It’s so crazy! But this is what they want. So I’ll cook.”
Lotchana can see her tactics are working. She now has 7 students, which she considers a hard-earned success. But the lack of feedback she receives continues to frustrate her.
“No one says what they really feel. You never really know why someone says what they do.”
This aspect of Japanese culture is ingrained in almost every part of society: language, norms, and behaviors build layers of politesse, respect, hierarchy, and class that make frank feedback and constructive criticism rare luxuries. Lotchana looks entirely European, save for her eyes, which makes it even more difficult for her to be trusted. She’s trying to tailor her teachings to the style and cultural behaviors of her students, but her reach is limited without a feedback loop.
In the face of these challenges, Lotchana isn’t giving up. But a grin and humble, guilty glance tell me some days she wishes she could. She’s on her personal journey to enlightenment, but has no trouble recognizing that she’s not there quite yet.
“This is a test for me,” she says, with a big, good-natured laugh. She was told she’d be in Japan for one year to start the center and then go back to France. But she’s still in Tokyo with no sign that she’ll be able to move back in the near future. Her funding comes from Kadampa centers around the world, and her teachers assigned her to this project.
In the meantime, she is facing her challenges building the center day by day, re-acclimatizing to Japanese culture, and working on her individual spiritual journey. And, as is human nature, she looks forward to breaths of fresh air along the way.
“I have one more week until I go for a retreat in England. And I can’t wait!”
With a big smile on her face, she gets up, obediently exchanges her indoor sandals for outdoor flip flops as is customary, and runs off to buy vegetables so she can feed her students in a few short hours.