Saturday, August 20, 2011

Zazen Meditation

I spent Tuesday afternoon sitting on my arse.

Luckily, it turns out half of Zen is simply learning how to sit.

I have to say, I had some preconceptions about Zen going into our first Zen meditation session, which was part of the Japanese language course we took this week.

"Zen" has some pretty strong connotations. You hear the word "zen," you think of bonsai trees, rock gardens, motorcycle maintenance, maybe green tea. In the West, Zen has come to stand in for Buddhism in general, and to my Western mind, there aren't many things more Japanese than Zen. The clean lines and empty spaces of Japanese interior design, the careful simplicity of a Japanese garden, even the minimalist flavors of Japanese cuisine--I know I've described each of these things as "zen."
Look! Zen!
I even dared to feel a little "zen" last June, epic struggle with the Japanese driving exam.

But as we walked through the gates of Shofuku-ji, the oldest Zen temple in Japan, I realized I didn't know the first thing about what Zen actually means. In fact, I'm pretty sure I'd never meditated before, aside from a few relaxation exercises, and maybe a couple good ski runs.
Somehow, I don't think this is the face of serenity.
Had I been of sound mind and body on Tuesday, I'm sure a host of appropriate questions would have been on my mind. As it were, though, I was too jet-lagged for anything but the most obvious worries: staying awake in the heat and sitting on the floor for an hour.

Indeed, these would prove to be the greatest challenges of the day.

When we got to the monk's quarters at the back of the temple grounds, we found he'd gone out: apparently some miscommunication had left him expecting us the next day.
Pictured: An absence of monks.
An older lady led us to a tatami room for some chilled barley tea and some snacks. It turns out she was the widow of the previous monk: apparently, low-level monks may marry, and in fact many temples are passed from father to their eldest son. That was how our monk had come to Shofuku-ji: born near Fukuoka, in Karatsu, he was the second son of a monk, and the Shofuku-ji monk died without a son to take over for him.

The house was beautiful: clean lines, polished wood, sliding doors and glass windows framing the leafy grounds of the temple outside--very "zen".

The sitting room was beautiful, too, at least for the first few minutes.

That afternoon had brought with it a boiling surge of damp heat, and the atmosphere in the house was oppressive. It seemed the sitting room had no air conditioner, or at least none that we could find. I decided this was also Zen--the austerity, the indifference to physical sensations. Maybe we were being tested, I thought, for Zen-like patience.

These kinds of thoughts make sense after your sleep-deprived brain has been steamed into mush.

We had thirty minutes before the monk returned, and if it hadn't been for the snacks, they would have been among the most uncomfortable minutes of my life.
I call it "Sweaty Man Eating Walnut Gummy Stuff."
Instead, I nibbled a bit, slipped into a stupor, and let Nana do all the talking for me, which burden was lessened slightly when our Spanish classmate curled up on the tatami for a quick siesta.

I was just thinking about joining him--though not without pausing to wonder whether it was hypothermia or heat stroke that ended with a fatal urge to go to sleep--when the monk returned, gasped in horror at the temperature, then produced an air con remote from an obscure corner of the room. Had I been more alert, I would have snapped a photo of the good monk, in his robes, summoning cold air with a flick of his wrist.

Thus passed the first of several notions disabused that day.

Next to fall was the prevalence of Zen in Japan: according to the monk, although the vast majority of Japanese people self-identify as Buddhist, few practice with any regularity. In fact, besides grounds-keeping, funerals are the main business of most Buddhist monks in Japan. Some lay people meditate, and some celebrate Buddhist holidays, but for the most part, they don't have an active relationship with Buddhism. (They do practice Shinto a little more frequently - but more on that in a later post.) In other words, for a lot of the time, Zen monks are more like curators or park rangers than clergymen.

After our brief lesson in the history and culture of Zen in Japan, the monk led us away for some actual "Zazen" (seated meditation).

You can picture Zazen in your head, maybe blended with a dash of yoga: a serene young woman, perhaps, with her legs crossed and her hands together, breathing deeply. In the next shot she'll be eating probiotic yoghurt.

Well, Zazen is a little like that, but apparently it also has its practical side, too. In fact, our meditation lesson was supremely practical, consisting mostly of tips for sitting still comfortably without falling asleep.  For instance, before we went to the meditation room, we were all reminded to pee. We had little cushions to make the lotus position more comfortable, and we were given some variations on the lotus position aimed at old cripples like me.

We were told to focus on the far end of the tatami mat in front of us, keep our eyes open but our lids heavy, breathe in slowly through our noses and exhale slowly through out mouths. A wooden clapper signalled the beginning of the session, followed by three chimes to help us measure out our breathing (I think). Then, a wooden clapper signalled the end. We stood up, took a few slow turns about the room - to wake up our sleeping legs, we were told - then sat back down for a second session.

I, in the meantime, had sat perfectly still - and awake - for five whole minutes. Probably for the first time in my life.

The experience was definitely interesting. I was actually pretty successful at emptying my head, which is kind of the goal of Zen meditation. The first session seemed pretty long, but the second session - a ten-minute sit - seemed a lot shorter. I may have nodded off a bit, though probably not, as the monk was patrolling throughout this session with a long wooden stick slung over his shoulder.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize what that stick is for.

All in all, this was an experience I might repeat. It was certainly relaxing, and I can't think of any other circumstance in which I could sit in a humid, 95-degree room and feel refreshed. But it was nice, sitting quietly, listening to the birds and the leaves and the cicadas, enjoying the breeze. I'm not sure if there was a larger point I was missing, but you know what? I'm also not sure I care. Maybe that's the point. I don't know.

On the plus side, thanks to the mosquitoes, Nana stumbled upon a new koan, which she presents to you in the form of a haiku:

Meditate upon
the sound of one hand clapping
against a skeeter.

It takes months to "solve" a Zen koan, but our monk solved this one in no time flat.


  1. If you friend a monk on Facebook, be prepared for some epic poking.

  2. Is an absence of monks like a murder of crows?