Zen Buddhism

Zen Buddhism, Koumyouji Rinzai Zen Temple in Kagoshima, Kyushu 全

Jiro Taylor

A Wall in Myoshinji Temple, Kyoto, Japan.

As I sat on my meditation cushion, legs curled up in pretzel-shaped agony I sneaked a glimpse out the corner of my eye.

The Zen priest who, until moments ago was as unthreatening as Zen priests are supposed to be was lithely tip-toeing across the tatami, holding a very large stick in his out-stretched arms. And he was coming my way.

History of Zen

Introduced to Japan from China in 1191 Zen Buddhism immediately became popular among the Samurai class who were attracted by its promotion of rigid self-discipline.

Zen grew to the point where by mid-way through the Kamakura period of Japan's history, the Zen scholars and monasteries began to wield influence in the affairs of state.

In recent times, interest in Zen has declined in Japan but has boomed in the West, after being popularized by the famous Japanese scholar D. T Suzuki (1870 - 1966). Celebrity practitioners such as Richard Gere and Martin Scorcese have also increased Zen's fame.

Exporting Zen

But what is it that has made Zen one of Japan's most famous exports? Zen temples and gardens are world renowned for their simplistic beauty. Zen koans - riddles designed to break the mind free of its logical thought processes, such as "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" - are recited the world over.

The word "Zen" has become a modern-day aphorism for pure and simple living, a clich of cool. Without many people knowing what it really means, Zen has become a part of our everyday cultural lexicon.

But if you ask a Zen Buddhist what Zen is all about you may well be told that Zen cannot be explained but must be experienced to be understood. It was with this in mind that I found myself in the most surreal of situations, sat cross-legged on my cushion, stealing wary glances at the priest of the Koumyouji Rinzai Zen Temple, in the backstreets of Kagoshima City.

The essence of Zen is that human suffering can be extinguished through understanding the fundamental nature of the mind. The most common way to do this is through seated meditation called zazen, a study of the self, a method of settling the mind in its original, unconditioned state of pure awareness.

On the simplest level, meditation can help create positive and highly concentrated states of mind which can be used to think clearly. After many years of practice, one may reach the ultimate achievement of satori (enlightenment): the ability to see the world as it really is.

Zen Meditation

Souken Matsumoto, the temple's surprisingly young Deputy Head Priest (fukujuushoku 副住職) looked the part in his wide-shouldered, pale blue robes tied together with a bulky black knotted belt. His head was shaved, and he wore no jewelry or ornamentation.

Without any chit-chat or formalities he asked us to straighten our shoes and rearrange our bags so they were as neat as possible. As I fondled around tucking straps away and experiencing my first taste of Zen perfection and order, the priest nodded in approval.

The meditation room was a large tatami-floored space with a simple altar at the far end, and a row of five cushions along each side facing toward the center.

The soft glow of dimmed lights and the scent of sandalwood incense in the air created a somber atmosphere. Three students were already sitting silently in meditation.

We sat on our cushions, and the priest kneeled before us to give instructions. The position of the body is very important in zazen, as it is believed to have a great effect on the mind and the ability to breathe correctly. The foremost position, if you can manage it, is the full-lotus, with each foot resting on the opposite thigh. Beginners usually find this painful or impossible, so we were allowed to sit in the half-lotus, with one just foot placed on the opposite thigh.

With our left gently gripping the right hand under the thumb, and our eyes half-shut we were to gaze at the brown edge of the tatami mat in front of us. We were then to concentrate all our energy into the bottom of the stomach, and to breathe slowly in and out from this spot. Although these were our only instructions, I had read earlier that zazen practice involves stopping the random wandering of the mind by paying close attention to the breath moving in and out of the body. When the mind becomes distracted by random thoughts or feelings, the idea is to keep returning again to focusing on breathing, which is a lot easier said than done.

The first meditation session began with a loud clap and three chimes of a bell. Soon enough my interest in breathing waned and I played over the priest's instructions and the new surroundings. The silence was broken only by the slow, deep breathing of those around me.

My legs, wedged into an unnatural half-lotus, were immediately painful, and as the minutes went by they became numb. After thirty minutes of discomfort and un-Zen-like mindlessness, a loud CLAP brought me back to the present moment. The first of three sessions was over.

During the five minute interval, the priest explained the procedure for the next zazen. He would be walking around the room carrying a wooden stick called a keisaku, and if we fell asleep he would hit us, although that rarely happened to first-time students. Also, if we wanted to be hit, all we had to do was put our hands together and bow. This was a worrying new turn of events.

Although I didn't know at the time, those requesting to be hit do so if they are struggling to focus their minds. The reasoning is that being hit will clear the mind, refocus the attention on the breath, and reset the Zen mind frame - just like banging an old TV can clear a fuzzy screen.

Myoshinji Temple, Kyoto, Japan.

The second meditation session began and silence fell over the room. After about five minutes the priest got up from his cushions and picked up the long, flat rectangular piece of wood. He slowly paced the room, the keisaku threateningly gripped in two hands, pointing upwards and held at arms length in front of his face.

He did come my way, stick raised high but despite my worst fears he wanted only to adjust my hands. By the end of the session three of the six people in the room had put their hands together to request to be hit and the priest ceremoniously obliged.

As it turned out, they didn't get the beating I had envisioned, but rather, two firm, dignified whacks on each shoulder. The second zazen session finished and, overcome by all the unexpected action, my mind was still far from reaching any higher plane of self-awareness.

After a short interval where we stood up to stretch our legs, we entered the final meditation session. More at ease in the surroundings and unfazed by any stick-wielding priests, concentrating on breathing was much easier.

The twenty minutes flew by and all too soon the priest signaled the end of zazen. Without a sound everyone got to their knees, legs folded under in the seiza position, and began chanting in a loud, rapid and non-stop stream of old-style Japanese. The priest recited with the others, and finished off verses in a lilting solo crescendo. The sutras concluded and everyone stood up, got back down to their knees and bowed low to the floor, repeating this about ten times. And that was the end of it. The group members silently gathered their belongings and left without a word.

When everyone had left the priest offered us some much anticipated words of wisdom. "First," said the priest, "you must continue and persevere. Now it is as though you can see Mount Fuji from a distance, but you won't know what it is like until you climb it." He explained that Zen takes many years of dedicated, persistent practice.

Second, he explained, with his hand clenched over his heart, that the spirit, kokoro, must be right. "In everyday life, be mindful of Zen - when you eat, focus on eating and eat to the best of your ability, when you clean, clean as well as you can." He said that that this was the reason why our shoes and bags had to be perfectly, flawlessly arranged - that is the Zen way.

"Why must I meditate in order to achieve enlightenment?" demanded the prince of the teacher. "I can study, I can pray. I can think on issues clearly. Why this silly emptying of mind?"

"I will show you," said the teacher, taking a bucket of water into the garden under the full moon. "Now I stir the surface and what do you see?" "Ribbons of light," answered the prince. "Now wait," said the teacher setting the bucket down.

Both teacher and boy watched the calming surface of the water in the bamboo bucket for many minutes. "Now what do you see?" asked the teacher. "The moon," replied the prince.

"So, too, young master, the only way to grasp enlightenment is through a calm and settled mind."

Excerpts from Zen Fables for Today, Richards McLean

Text by Jiro Taylor, photos of Myoshinji Temple, Kyoto, by C. Ogawa

Read more on Japanese Buddhism

Japan Articles by Jiro Taylor

Waribashi Chopsticks

Books on Japanese Zen

Goods From Japan to your home or business.