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Monday, May 4

I Aimed To Sit For A Day... And Sit I Did

As much as I have enjoyed the sunny and warm weather this past month, it felt appropriate that I awoke last week on Tuesday to the sound of a light rain falling steadily outside. For on that particular day, I was finally getting to do the one thing that I have always wanted to do here in Japan and never thought that I would have the opportunity… zazen meditation.

You see, zazen meditation is almost always done, and therefore taught, in Japanese. At least here in Japan anyway. Japan is still strongly associated with the original Japanese religion, Shinto, and just as strongly, Buddhism. Buddhism did not originate in this country, but it has found strong roots here, particularly Zen Buddhism with its main practice being zazen meditation. Of all the cultural practices I have explored here in this country, I was eager to try a form of meditation that I thought would help me build on practices in which I already partake. I just never thought it would actually happen because it is rare to find a Japanese monk who speaks English well enough to teach foreigners how to do this. I mean… they really do have more important things to be doing with their time… like being on a constant quest to be a spiritually observant monk.

My babysitter for the day actually practices zazen herself, so she guided me on wardrobe choices: dark and comfortable clothes. Nothing constricting because you are going to be sitting for long periods of time in a position that few bodies every willingly put themselves in. I chose my favorite loose fitting olive green cargo pants and a simple black wrap sweater, feeling that I was still presentable in Japanese society, but appropriately modest for the meditation practice.

I arrived early to the Kencho-ji Temple, giving myself enough times to wander the grounds for a bit. Kencho-ji is the oldest Zen training temple in Japan, founded in 1253, and boasts the national treasures of its temple bell protected under a thatched roof. Crossing the two gates, the inner and the outer, the temple grounds then contain the Main Hall, the Lecture Hall, the Chief Priest’s Quarters, many other buildings and several huge Juniper trees that were grown from seeds brought with the founding Chinese priest and are reportedly 730 years old. As the rain poured down around me, I splashed my way from one building to the next taking in my ancient surroundings.

My last stop was the Main Hall, where I removed my shoes at the entrance, checked in and proceeded to the inner part of the shrine. My escorting monk instructed me to enter the room with my left foot first and then pausing to take a deep bow. A few others were already gathered and sitting quietly on the cushions that were lined up on either side of the altar, with two cushions placed in front of the altar for the monks who would be leading the meditation. The cuffs of my pants had gotten completely soaked in my wandering, leaving me with no choice but to sadly sit with them stuck cold and damp to my ankles. But zazen is all about letting your mind free of external thoughts, so I hoped it wouldn’t distract me once we got started.

When everyone was accounted for, about ten foreigners sat around the room. Two monks at the front of the room and four more at the back. Typically zazen lasts for about an hour without any breaks or even slight movement, but knowing that we were inexperienced at such endurance, the monks had broken the session up into three of 15 minutes each. Before starting, he gave us a brief explanation of how to sit. Lotus position or cross-legged is best but difficult for most foreigners. I went with the half lotus for the first session, but stepped up to full lotus for the second two sessions. Spine should be straight; swaying a few times helps until you are centered. Hands are placed on the abdomen with the fingers of your right hand on top of the fingers from the left hand and then placing the thumbs together to create an oval shape. Mouth is closed (no talking obviously as this is entirely silent except for the late portion of chanting) with your tongue placed against the roof of your mouth just behind your teeth. You then breathe quietly through your nose, with the out breath being longer than the in. The last step is to pull in your chin and extend your neck as though the top of your head is pointing at the ceiling, while the shoulders, back and abdomen are relaxed without changing the posture. This is the exact position you will remain in throughout the meditation, which takes less concentration if you put yourself correctly into position from the start. Oh and last thing… eyes are slightly open, cast downward at a 45 degree angle. I thought the positioning was simple, but I owe that to years of yoga practice. Others did not find it as comfortable and no one attempted the lotus except for myself.

A bell is rung and the zazen starts. The scent of incense fills the room. There is no talking, no sound, no movement. You need to tune out the footsteps of the monk passing in front of you, the sound of the rain falling outside and anything else that might distract you. You’re only goal is to bring yourself inward and erase all thoughts from your mind. This quiet thinking is meant to clarify your mind and bring you to the truth of what is your real self, out of the fog of illusion or clouds of ignorance. If your mind wanders, you refocus until it is clear again. “To grasp the wisdom of emancipation while within the dust and suffering through sitting is zazen.” This is taken from How to Practice Zazen, a guidebook the temple gave us at the day’s end. The hardest part is truly clearing your mind and anyone who has ever tried any type of meditation can attest to that. Little things pop in all the time that need to be swept away, but with practice and patience it can be achieved. Will I ever be a person who meditates daily? Doubtful. But will I be a person who knows the technique well enough to do zazen when I’m feeling anxious and stressed? Hopefully. I wish I could say I will do this regularly, but my mama taught me not to lie.

So the monk is walking around the room on the first session just helping people correct their posture or breathing. He never once stopped on me so I think I have it down pretty well. As the session ended, the monks had chosen to do another form of zazen to help us foreigners get the blood moving again. He gave us time to stretch our legs and prepare for the next practice: mindful walking. Without talking again, and with hands placed over our chest, we were instructed to line up and silently walk around the wooden hall. The same mindfulness and emptying of your mind should occur while doing this… terribly hard for a group of foreigners clomping across the creaky, wooden walkway and often distracted by the beauty of the zen garden or the site of the other temples on the grounds. But we tried.

After our ‘lap’, we came back and sat and prepared to meditate again. This second session, the monk added in the board. Can you guess what they do with the board? They hit you with it… that’s right! As he walks around the room and everyone silently meditates, if you want to be hit with the board, you cross your arms over your chest and bow deeply. He will then hit you with the board, twice on each shoulder. Who do you think was the first, and in this session the only, person besides a monk who asked to be hit? Good guess again. I’m a glutton for punishment. Does he hit hard? Yes. Enough to sting for some time after he has moved on. The point of this is that it is to help you back to mindfulness. As I said, zazen is an exercise in endurance for those experienced with it. You get dazed. You get sleepy. But you need to bring yourself back. This is supposed to do it. It worked for me. And I didn’t ask for that again.

The session ended, this time feeling even shorted than the first although it was the same length of time. Each one felt shorter and shorter to me, making me think an hour wouldn’t honestly be that tough for me to handle, even though I am quite green at this meditation. We stood, hands over our chests and walked the planks again. Back into the room for the final session of meditation. For this round, two or three more people asked for the board. I didn’t. Once was enough for now. Plus, I didn’t want to appear cocky when I am supposed to be connecting with my real self and the universe.

The final round of zazen came with chanting. The position stays the same, but this time you are chanting. We used cheat sheets, forcing us to alter our hands to hold it. The chanting is supposed to come from deep inside of you. It goes with the deep breathing you have already been practicing in silence, but there is something very cathartic about it. Only one problem for a novice like myself… there were no breaks on the page… just lines and lines of Japanese chanting. Somewhere around the middle, I lost my focus and lost my place on the page. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find your place again when reading a foreign language? It took me until then very end of the chanting to find the spot and start in again. Next time I will be more focused and not let this happen. I hope.

A hard day’s work of making myself a better person was completed. The monks typically have tea afterwards, so this was the plan for today. We were escorted into an upper tatami room where traditional Japanese tea and sweets was served. As with the meditation, even taking tea is done in mindfulness. Once we were done, the monks did open the room for discussion. Since this was the first time they had done this for foreigners, they were very curious as to our thoughts. Was it broken up acceptably? Was the cost okay? Was their English clear enough? Would we do this again? They asked for us to write some thoughts down. All I can say is that it was absolutely perfect. I felt serene and energized at the same time. I felt like I had learned an important way of how to slow my often crazy mind. The skills I learned that day could be beneficial in many instances of daily life, if only I slow down enough to use them.

The monks informed us that they will be doing this three or four times a year in English at the Kencho-ji Temple and were hoping we would return to do it again. I surely hope to. As I mentioned, my babysitter does this on a weekly basis, but it is done in Japanese. Maybe not just yet, but soon, I think I could join her at her temple.

Leaving Kencho-ji Temple with my gift of incense and the zazen book, I felt charged. I flew for days on a high. Maybe it was the experience… or maybe was it the zazen was already taking effect?


Heather Meadows said...

Wow, what a cool experience! Thanks for sharing it :)

Mike S said...

One of the best things I brought back from Asia was Buddhism, which I still practice. Having been totally immersed for 6+ months at a monastery I'm always impressed by those who try any of the meditations.

I can imagine the rain there, one thing I especially loved. Call me strange, but a soft rain and light fog generally accompanied those quiet times when I truly felt most in touch with Japan.