On December 27th, the rice-cake pounding ceremony takes place and great quantities of rice-cakes are made. Three types of rice-cakes are prepared on the day. One is rice-cakes in the shape of a traditional mirror, to be offered to the Buddhist statues enshrined in the temple. The second type of rice-cakes is called jubyo (lit. the rice-cake for longevity). These are presented to Zen masters in the monastery with the wish for their good health. The third type of rice-cakes is for the monks to eat during the first three days of the New Year. At six o’clock on the evening on that day, the monks gather at the temple kitchen in the building called Kichijo-kaku. They start pounding the rice-cakes after praying for the good health of their masters as well as for the rest of the temple. They use four large mortars to make more than 500 pieces ranging from very large to small. It is a boisterous event where the normally quiet monks come to life, smiling and shouting, while pounding away in a kitchen covered in white flour.
The end of December sees a series of year-end events. Events such as the rice-cake pounding, cleaning, alms begging for the needy and the striking of the New Year’s Eve bell. The founder, Dogen, once preached at his New Year’s Eve sermon that one should attain mastery of his/her discipline by year end, otherwise the daily practice of the last 360 days would be in vain: a reminder of the importance of each day.
the New Year (Gantan) January 1st
The morning of the New Year’s at Eiheiji starts at 3 a.m. Monks meditate soon after they get up, starting their new year with a lungful of the fresh, cold, almost spring-tinged, air.
For the first three days of the New Year, there is a series of New Year ceremonies known as shusho-e (lit. New Year ceremonies). On January 1st, sutras of six hundred Buddhist scrolls are chanted and the monks offer prayers for the flourishing of the Dharma, the peace of the world, the prosperity of the people and the peace of the nation. On January 2nd is a ceremony in which the great prajna-paramita sutra ( Hannya Kyo) is chanted, and on January 3rd, a ceremony praising the Buddha (Tanbutsu-e). Every day, more than ten thousand worshippers come to receive the Buddha’s blessing.
Until the middle of January, such ceremonies as the Jinjitsu-en are held (entertainment by and for the monks who are divided into groups according to dormitory), and the first calligraphy ceremony of the year. The entertainment event in particular sums up the festive New Year atmosphere and is where the personalities of the monks and the mood of each dormitory are displayed.
After the Rohatsu Sesshin (December sesshin) is over, New Year preparations such as year-end cleaning, rice-cake pounding and preparations for the New Year’s ceremony take place. At the end of the year, the monks beg for alms for the needy. The monks make their own footwear, symbolizing a firm foundation for both mind and body, and walk around Tsurumi Town.
On December 31st, the monks must be in bed by 6 p.m. and be up again at 11 p.m. on the same evening to the ringing of a bell ready for the New Year. The Mukai-karamon Chinese style-gate, normally closed, opens at a quarter to midnight and the bell starts to toll. The bell tolls 108 times to symbolize the eradication of worldly desires. On top of that, Sojiji allows each and every visitor a single strike on the bell. Being a time of year when unexpected incidents and disasters are likely to occur, it is a great opportunity for the visitors to strike the bell with the hope that their worldly desires will vanish and that their new year be a good one.
the New Year (Gantan) January 1st
At a quarter past midnight on New Year’s Day, the first ceremony of the year known as the New Year’s Grand Service (Hatsumode-daikitoukai) takes place. At the Founder’s Hall, all of the monks who serve the temple gather, and the ceremony is led by the leading Zen Master with prayers for the safety of the temple, the happiness of the people and the peace of the nation. Following this ceremony, other ceremonies are held in the temple precincts, such places as Koshakudai, where Daikoku, the god of prosperity, is enshrined and Sanpo-den where Sanpo Daikojin, the local god of the temple yard, is enshrined. January 1st is filled with the chanting voices of the monks offering up Buddhist sutras in the temple.
After New Year, comes the coldest season. According to the lunar calendar, Shokan (lit. small coldness) sets in the middle of January. The monks gather winter alms in the coldest season of the year until February 2nd. During this period, after the afternoon service, more than 100 monks set out in straw sandals and traditional gloves for the neighboring town, Tsurumi where they beg for between an hour and a half and two hours.