Meditation in Japan is a discipline practiced by Zen Buddhist monks and, a few days ago, we were able to see into the world of the art and practice of zazen. There are many different interpretations of the meaning of Zazen, but most see it as a means of insight into the pure nature of existence.
We arrived at the Ryozen-Kannon Buddhist Temple and the first thing we saw was a stunning, seated, 80-foot stone Buddha statue. The Kannon Buddha is the boddhisatva of compassion. The Ryozen-Kannon Buddha was built in 1955 as a home for the souls of the people who died in battle trying to protect the peace of the Japanese people. The statue is imposing and majestic, but simultaneously it is serene and peaceful, looking out over Kyoto.
We were greeted by one of the Zen monks who was dressed in his traditional robes of black and white, flowing effortlessly as he guided us to the meditation room, or zendo. He had prepared individual areas for our practice. Each of us had a zabuton, which is a flat square-shaped pillow, and on top of that was the zafu, which was a smaller, more densely packed pillow that aids in propping your legs and allowing your back to stay upright and straight. It was actually very comfortable…at first.
We were told to sit on the zafu with our backs straight and our legs in a crossed position in front of us. The monk was practicing full lotus where the souls of his feet opened to the sky. Brooke was able to sit in full lotus. I found half lotus and Brad, Ryan, Brayden and our guide, Omri, sat comfortably, cross-legged. Our hands were to rest comfortably on our laps, one hand overlapping the other with our thumbs touching one another at the tips. These adjustments were the physical base to prepare us for the spiritual aspect we were about to learn and practice.
The last two elements of the physical readiness concern your eyes and breath. Your eyes are open and softly resting on one particular spot on the floor about three feet in front of you. We were fortunate to have our pillows on a tatami map, which is a weaved straw and bamboo mat that has intersections of material where you can steady your sight while you meditate. Your breath is methodical – in through your nose and out through your mouth. There is no counting or extension of the breath, just calm and natural breathing. You are now prepared to practice zazen.
Zazen is meant to allow you to turn off all thoughts, but not for the need of cleansing to make room for increased focus on something else, but to actually free the mind of thought. We were told to simply practice feeling your stomach rise and fall and repeat to yourself to breathe in and breathe out. When the mind wanders outside the zendo, you are supposed to bring yourself back to the methodic breathe in and breathe out mantra. Your mind is said to have the ability to achieve enlightenment or openness with a free and empty mind, not one that is full and cluttered with thought.
This is much easier said than done. Try it…ok, starting now, don’t think anything. Sure, really easy to do. If you actually tried that just now, you might think it would be no problem; just achieve that focus and you are meditating. However, you might have an empty mind for about a second and then it would be off thinking about work, kids, the birds outside, dry cleaning…really anything else. Not necessarily a contemplative analysis of the meaning of life, just stuff. Through this meditative exploration and focus on nothing, you can free yourself to open up space for increased awareness outside of the meditative state. I know that might sound counter-intuitive, meaning why wouldn’t taking peaceful, uninterrupted time prepare me better for those feats that lie ahead after my practice, but really the meditative practice is bigger than that and has more lifetime meaning as a means of a way of life, not just a momentary practice.
My mind wandered quite a bit. There were lovely birds singing outside that kept stealing my attention and deterred me from thinking of my breath. Usually the birds singing led to thinking about Brooke’s voice when she sings, then on to the song Brad was humming in the car on the way here, and – oh yes, breathe in, breathe out. Then the bells outside rang, what time is it? Were the bells for us or just because it was 10:00 am? Must be for the time, shucks, breathe in, breathe out. See what I mean…not so easy. But, as our monk reminded us, this is a practice. You get better over time and find yourself less distracted with the more you practice.
We practiced two sessions of 15 minutes, but to me it felt like it was about an hour. After a break and conversation with everyone else, we all agreed it felt much longer than 15 minutes. Before the actual meditation began, the monk clapped together two wooden blocks, symbolizing the start of the session. It was surprisingly loud. When I visualized beginning my meditative practice sitting in a peaceful place, I didn’t think I would want to hear such a loud, abrasive sound, but as I found out later, the intention is to abruptly prepare you for your meditation. The monk ends the session the same way. He couples the wooden blocks clanging together with a beautiful bell he sounds three times at the beginning and ending of the session.
The second session flew by. I would have thought we were there, at the most, ten minutes. I felt sleepy this time, but I definitely did not want to make the monk aware that I was tired, because if you do fall asleep as a practicing monk, you are inviting the proctoring monk to come to you with a thick, bamboo stick and slap you on the back to wake you. It is actually your obligation to raise the awareness of your lethargy and be revived so you may continue your practice. He told us it works. We were not surprised as he acted out the magnitude of the motion he makes with the Bamboo stick and it was shockingly aggressive and seemingly painful. Our amazing guide, Omri, had the unfortunate job of role-playing this aspect of the practice. Though, the monk assured us, he was gentle with Omri. So, if you ever plan to practice true zazen, my suggestion would be to drink tea before you begin or make a plan to prepare yourself for this awakened state. You can achieve simultaneous alertness and meditative peacefulness.
After we were done learning and practicing, our monk prepared some matcha tea for us, which is customary after you finish a meditation session. The tea ceremony is very simple, yet strictly structured. First, we are given a beautiful sweet that we eat before we have our tea. The monk gives us each a lovely tea cup with a symbol of a chrysanthemum, which symbolizes the Imperial family in Japan. The chrysanthemum is called the Imperial flower and is the National flower of Japan and also the flower of September in Japan, we saw them everywhere. The monk puts a small amount of green matcha tea powder into the tea cup, combines it with a bit of boiling water and, using a bamboo whisk, whips the powder and water together to create a foam that sits atop the tea. He then hands the cup to each person, they bow to thank him, place the cup in their left hand and turn the cup twice clockwise, so the chrysanthemum flower faces away from their lips and only then you can sip the tea. He prepares the tea for each person individually, not all at once. The matcha tea is very strong and has a high caffeine content, perhaps used to prepare the monks for their meditation session.
I definitely felt more relaxed, peaceful and centered after our mediation and would like to incorporate elements of zazen into my fairly introductory present meditation practice. I feel blessed during this adventure we are on to have the time to meditate more than when I was at home, but realize that it truly takes very little to find space in your day to sit comfortably, breathe in, breathe out and free your mind. It can make a long-term difference within a short-term practice…15 minutes a day is all you need. If you want to read more about the practice, you can learn more at Zazen practice.