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.