I began the semester working with Deepest Kyoto, a locally based tour group that seeks to explore the more unknown parts of Kyoto. While it was a valuable experience, I ended up switching CIPs come March due to the time commitment required for Deepest Kyoto. The CIP I have been pursuing, as of late, is Zazen meditation lessons at Daitokuji temple. This experience has enriched my time here in Kyoto in so many ways, and I’ve learned so much from it (both in terms of Japanese culture, and in terms of good meditation practice!)
Every Sunday evening, I arrive at Daitokuji’s Daisen-in sub-temple, pay a small fee, and enter an atmosphere of peace and serenity. Needless to say, it’s a good place to de-stress after a long week, and mentally prepare for the week ahead. I usually arrive about 15 minutes early so I can spend some time wandering through the rock garden before settling into the meditation room, zenshitsu. Lessons are open to the public, so while I (and a few others) consistently attend, there are also new faces every week. There are usually 3-5 people in attendance, and the Daisen-in Buddhist Priest, obousan, leads the lessons.
But, what is Zazen meditation? Great question! Zazen meditation is the meditation technique that’s practiced within the Zen Buddhist sect, and it has a few unexpected surprises. While it begins the way most meditation I’ve done in the past does—legs crossed, back straight, eyes closed (or focused on a specific spot), and hand in a mudra—after a few minutes, the priest comes and hits everyone on the back with a long stick, keisaku, with the purpose to keep your mind sharp and awaken you from any sleepy thoughts. Don’t be scared! They hit hard, but, believe it or not, it really feels good, and it really improves meditation concentration. The amazing thing about it is the tradition surrounding how the series of strikes are delivered. On my first day, the obousan instructed me that, to receive a strike, you must bow to the obousan, who bows back, then you lean forward, and he delivers three precise strikes—right, left, left—on your back, for which you then sit up quickly and bow in thanks, then return to meditating. Throughout the entire hour-long session, you can request a strike by the keisaku at any time by putting your hands together.
After an hour long of non-stop meditation (let’s just say that I literally cannot feel my legs for a good five minutes after it), we all retire to the tea-room, and drink matcha and eat wagashi and chat for half an hour or so. This part of the evening is especially nice, because I have the opportunity to interact with the obousan, which is such a privilege and learning experience. Not only does it give me the chance to practice my keigo, but I also get to learn about Zen Buddhism (architecture, meditation practices, the history of the Daitokuji temple, rock garden art) directly from a Buddhist priest. Every evening is a really incredibly experience, because the obousan loves to get to know his pupils, and also loves to talk about history. So, I get a chance to tell him about myself and develop a relationship, while also gaining a unique perspective on Kyoto’s rich history.
This experience has been incredibly rewarding, and it saddens me that in just a few weeks, my venue for meditation will change from the beautiful Daisen-in temple, with cool breezes and rock gardens, to a messy bedroom. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to develop a relationship with and learn from a Zen Buddhist priest, and I hope to continue practicing the meditation techniques I learned this semester upon returning home.
Sitting with legs crossed for 5 minutes is my limit, but an hour of sitting with legs crossed? This sounds painful. I heard the strikes delivered by obousan are very serious and also painful. So is there something special you should think about while performing Zazen meditation? Or do you just simply empty your mind? Meditation is practiced in other regions as well. Besides obousan hitting you with a keisaku, Is there anything else that makes Zazen meditation different from the other types of meditation?
The strikes delivered really do mean business, as they literally echo. You certainly feel a pain, but it’s not an acute I-just-got-beat-with-a-stick type of pain. They deliver it in a manner that your whole body absorbs the strike, so it actually isn’t that bad. I actually attended a special event at the temple where there were many small children (elementary school, probably) who also attended–the obousan hit them just as hard, and not one of them had any problems! I was impressed. In terms of things to think about, Zazen really works to sharpen an individual’s concentration. So, while emptying your mind may be the first step, the second, more important one, is to completely fill your mind with a sound, word, or mantra. It’s very much like Hindu meditation, where one repeats “om” over and over again to guide their thinking, except in this case, the goal is to train yourself to focus your mind on something specific, rather than calm and release the mind.
So now I’m sadder than ever that I didn’t join you at any meditation sessions earlier in the semester, but I’m so happy to hear that you had such a rewarding experience (that I can at the very least live vicariously through by reading this post). Have you ever practiced hour-long meditation before? Like Ming asked, what does emptying your mind look like in zazen meditation? Are there any tricks you use to keep your mind focused? What is your relationship to the other regulars like? Are there zazen meditation centers in the US?
Wish you could have come !!!
Emptying your mind in Zazen is a very similar in process to other meditation practices, though the goal is different. Rather than as a way to de-stress and let your mind rest, it’s a time to really work on training yourself to focus your mind…which is incredibly difficult for me hehe. Thus, after your mind is emptied, the obousan tells you to again fill it, but with a single word or a phrase (real Zen Buddhist fill their minds with spiritual mantras) and try to focus all your energy and thoughts on that for an hour. It’s incredibly difficult, but once you reach a point of concentration you feel the effects for several days afterwards. The other regulars are wonderful mom-like people who would always take care of me and help me get to the bus stop and tell me to be safe and so on–needless to say, they were wonderful people. Zazen centers exist in the US I think…? Hmmm I’ll have to look into that, as well!