Toilet Dumping: Monastic Life in Japan

On my second day at the monastery I was assigned to help empty one of the the septic tanks. The task was announced the night prior as 'toilet dumping', which certainly made me wonder about the day to come. During the morning work period, known as samu, my task was simple: dig a hole in the ground in the forest to which I would then empty buckets of urine from the guesthouse. I didn't actually mind the task, as I was enthusiastically looking forward to diving into monastic life. I'm sure there is a quote from the Buddha about accepting whatever life throws at you, especially if it's piss.

the  hondo  at Sogenji 

the hondo at Sogenji 

It was just shy of forty degrees that September day, and the humidity was heavy in the lungs. Not surprisingly, digging a giant hole in an uncleared forest came as a challenge. Eventually I worked up a sweat and decided to take off my shirt. Naturally, I didn't think twice. It was hot and I was sweating zen bullets. The shirt's gotta go. Alas, being that it was a coed monastery, and, well, that it was in fact a monastery I was given polite warning that I had to stay fully clothed. Unfortunate but ultimately understandable. After a few hours I finished the work, drenched in both sweat and probably a few splashes of piss. I felt productive.

monastically productive

monastically productive

It wasn't until a couple months later when I was given that same opportunity to 'feel productive'. Toilet Dumping was once more on the daily work list and this time it was for the Zendo- the meditation hall. On top of the fact that it was for a larger building, this time it was for also for both, uh, number one and number two. I will admit I was less enthusiastic this time round. There probably a place here for a holy shit pun here, seeing that it was buckets of crap from a holy building. I'll let you put it together.

The Toilet Dumping crew consisted of myself and some of my monken comrades, each donned in some soilable clothes and set to task. The septic tanks were six feet below ground, forcing us to scoop everything up with a long ladle and dump them into buckets- hence the name toilet dumping. We divided the work into scoopers and carriers- those who scooped up the slurry into the awaiting buckets, and those who shouldered it to the pits dug in the wood. It wasn't the best way to spend a morning but we were all in high spirits and saw the task through...with only one minor, messy and surely inevitable hiccup.

Two of the monks were carrying a bucket to the pit when the ropes abruptly snapped. Eyes widened and everything slowed. The bucket fell as if in Matrix bullet time and landed perfectly perpendicular to the hard dirt. The jarring force flung the cocktail straight into the air, arching away from the monks who were just moments ago hauling it away to its woodland grave. Miraculously, not a single drop touched either of them. However it just so happened that one of the monks who had the day off was doing his laundry barely a few feet away. His karma was different.


The sludge found its target over and through the nearby lattice to where said nonchalant monk was washing his clothes, enjoying a rare moment of free time. In less than an instant he was covered in shit; head to toe he stood a brown monument to our calamity. He froze in complete stillness as our slow-motion reactions collided with reality. We all stood, mouthes agape, waiting for his reaction. The heavy silence lingered, wordless and colossal.

And then he said my name. He said it with the utmost calm, yet still firm enough to grip my attention. I hesitantly replied, leading him to provide me with one simple instruction:

“Go get my camera.”

I ran, realizing the potential future joy this moment would bring, and grabbed his camera. I snapped a handful of pictures before he trudged off to the shower, laundry in tow. The rest of us started to clean up the mess, still in full and utter appreciation of his stoic response.

He never did send me a copy of that photo. I suppose I can't blame him.

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The First Noble Truth is that life involves suffering. I like to think that can roughly be updated to shit happens. And since it will inevitably happen we might was well relax, snap some pictures, and enjoy what we can, when we can.