Sunday, August 14, 2005

Zen meditation at Zuioji

This morning I went to Zuioji temple to practice zazen, or Zen meditation. This was very exciting for me, as you can imagine, and I have been waiting to see this specific temple/monastery ever since I learned I was going to live in Niihama.
It took about 40 min to get there by bike, all up hill, for this temple is located at the base of the mountains (and I live by the coast.) The entire last stretch of gravel road leading up to the entrance was lined with a cemetery, as if asking you to remember that yes, you will soon be visiting here too.
I got the entrance around 8:00, exhausted, greeted by a stunning sculpture of Daruma, the founder of Zen, and Kannan, the bodhisattva of compassion. Everything was fresh, glittering light, luminous, numinous trees and stone steps, wood walls, the insects and birds singing away. I stumbled around finding my way to the sitting hall and I discovered about twenty other “first timers” already there. I guess I was a little late. A beautiful, Beautiful monk holding a large black stick ushered me in, showed me where to sit, and I tell you I was so tied it felt wonderful to sit down. Mingure Rinpoche, a Tibetan teacher who came to talk at KU, told us that when you sit, imagine you have just run a marathon and you get to finally sit down. That is how relaxed you should be. I was also reminded of the Zen temple in Lawrence that begins its morning service with 108 prostrations leaving you sweating and exhausted by the time you get to sit and look at the wall. I guess if I do this every Sunday the bike ride will be like my prostrations.
Sweat still dripping down my back, I got into posture and stared at the wood wall, finding a nice white knot to rest on. In Zen meditation, one just simply sits looking at the wall, placing awareness on the breath, and the instructor walks around looking for any signs of drowsiness, and if you show any sign at all, such as droopy shoulders or eyes, he will give you a light hit with his stick. I didn’t get to experience this, but I almost slouched a little just to see what it would be like.
So we sat for 30 min, then chanted for fifteen, then did walking meditation for another fifteen. Afterwards, we all went across the courtyard to a small room where tea and sweets awaited us. There, we asked the monk questions and talked about how we liked our zazen experience. I heard one man say his legs really hurt. After everyone left, I told the monk that I am a beginning practitioner and would like to come back and he gave me a book of sutras and a Zen newsletter in English. Isn’t that wonderful!
The sutra we all chanted together seemed to be about how to sit. That is all. Just sitting instructions. “…Put your right foot on your left thigh. Put your left foot on your right thigh. “Keep the back straight. Place hands in lap. This is how we sit.” That kind of stuff. It probably says more. I will translate it later.
On my way home I explored the cemetery. I saw many people cleaning/sweeping, the gravesites, lighting incense, placing flowers and offerings such as sweets, rice, and even canned drinks in front to graves. I liked seeing the city down below the cemetery. It reminded me of a drawing I did, where it looks like the city kind of turns into the cemetery. Only here I thought of the ancestors, the dead, looking out at their children, knowing they are only moments away from joining them on this mountainside. Buildings do look like, or at least have the same shape, as tombstones.

Now for a more in depth look at Zen Meditation. In Zen, and particularly in Soto Zen, a sect founded by Dogen (1200-1253) Buddhist practice itself is enlightenment. It is “Buddha activity.” “The journey is the destination.” If you are interested, Zen meditation places emphasis on single pointed concentration, whether that is on the breath, or on a spot on the wall in front of you, or on the sound of a bell. Whatever. The most popular is the breath. And you should have a straight back, and you must not close your eyes.
Anyone who practices “being mindful of the breath” even for a few minutes discovers that their minds are, as the Buddhists say, like that of a monkey’s, jumping all over the place, compulsively active, obsessively thinking. You are always talking to yourself! And therefore it is nearly impossible to keep some attention on the breath for even a few minutes. This is exactly what you are supposed to discover. Then the question arises “well, shit, why can’t I stop thinking and just focus on my breath!? Who is in control here?”
Eventually it might dawn on you that your mind is out of control! Actually, most people already know this, but to sit down and take at look at your mind, and then try to direct it where you want it to go, such as on the breath, can be very disheartening. In fact, it keeps many people away from ever meditation again. But if you take up the challenge, and do the experiment of meditation, you will see results. You will develop concentration.
One way this is done is, after following after thoughts for a while, you remember that you are supposed to be following the breath, and so you release the thoughts, and return to the breath. This is very natural and easy and gentle. Another thought comes up, and you let it go again. The point is to keep letting everything go. Let go let go let go. Desires come up, thoughts, plans, fantasies, doubts, concepts, horrible memories, all sorts of stuff will come up and you just let it go and return to the breath. After a while you see that thoughts are like clouds, they come and they go, and they come and they go, and you are actually a presence that remains unmoved. You are the sky, looking down at all the clouds passing through you. And, like the sky, you are clear, spacious, open, and free. You are actually an opening or clearing through which all thoughts and experiences come and go ceaselessly. Discovering this clear, spacious nature of your being is like discovering the vast ocean residing beneath all the waves whiling on the surface. There is a release, a stillness, a peace, a freedom expanding without limit. And that is just the beginning of Zen meditation.
(Initial meditation experiences are also likened to being at a movie. You sit and watch all these fantasies and thoughts pass by in front of your awareness, without actually getting up and following after them. You just watch them go by, just like how you watch a movie, or you watch clouds go by in the sky. You let your monkey mind go wherever it will, and just watch. Let me know if you want to know more. Or, just meditate and see for yourself. )
Yeah, looking at meditation like a science experiment is very important. Actually, im not going to rant about meditation again. Nevermind.


~Kelley~ said...

Your passage is like reading a winding river, leaving me still and content. Thank you, David.

ng2000 said...

Valuable resource of zen news summaries:

garyo said...

this was great to read - it walked me right into Zuojii, which I am planning to visit on my 88 temple walk March/April. Thank you!

May all beings be Free and in Love.

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