Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Sitting zazen at a Soto Zen university.

As I wrote in a previous post I found a zendo at a Soto Zen university which is 30 minutes by car from my house. I've only lived in this town for a couple of years, so I'm still getting to know the area. The university was established by Soto Zen practitioners and has a Faculty of Zen Studies. Here's a link to their website, which has an excellent instruction on how to do zazen.

Yesterday was my second visit, the first being very clumsy, not knowing what the hell I was doing and not having enough confidence in Japanese to ask anyone. I was just watching and following.

The zendo is a magnificent building tucked away in the trees at the back of a pretty big campus. I could go into detail describing the building and how beautiful it is, but that's not what's important. The local temple I go to each week has a very relaxed attitude to the formalities of sitting. Their is no kyosaku or monk in attendance. The monk who runs the temple (with his family) strikes a very large bell housed in a ground level belfry outside the zendo, then joins us in sitting.

In the university zendo there are at least two monks in attendance. Yesterday there were two in robes and two younger ones in western clothes, but wearing rakusu, the flat, square bag worn around the neck. I assume they're students at the Zen institute, and probably novice monks. One of the monks wears dharma robes and is the chief Zen master. I just saw him on the website as being the director of the Zen institute.

The zendo is a large rectagular room with seating for well over 100 people sitting two deep on tatami, just like other major zendos, for example Eiheiji monastery. Yesterday only one zafu on the second row was being used. Sitting is preceded by the Zen master walking swiftly around the Zendo, passing each sitter who is sitting on a zafu, but facing outwards into the middle of the room. This 'inspection' is called 'Kentan' and when the master passes each sitter must do gassho. When he finishes, a bell is struck three times and we turn around on the zafu to face the wall to begin 20 minutes of sitting, then a short session of 'Kinhin', which is walking meditation, then another 20 minutes on the zafu. The session ends with the unpan and mopan being struck.

My first sitting in this place was not good as I was overly conscious about being there and following procedure, as well as being a few feet away from a wall and staring at a zafu, rather than the wall. It was simply too strange. However, yesterday, the quality of my sitting rose significantly. For some reason, staring in the direction of a black zafu, rather than a wall, allowed my eyes to settle, glaze over and my concentration to properly rest on my breath. Usually I find myself struggling with jittery eyes. I thought about this on the way home in the car. It was truly a step forward for me. As I sat with my mind on my breath, I was looking with my mind's eye into a void and my thoughts were nil. There was perfect quiet except for my breath and I was utterly aware. I could hold this for a only a few short periods before being disturbed by something external, but it was the most wonderful experience. Last night at home, after the kids went to bed, I went into the room I sit zazen in, a tradition Japanese room with tatami mat flooring and green, sand-gritted plastered walls, and turned the lights down much lower to what they normally are. It was not totally dark, but dark enough for my eyes not to be strained as I tried to settle them. Once again I was able to gain a better level of concentration on my breath.

The zazenkai (zen sitting sessions) at the university are opened to the public only once a month, but next month there is a break for the holiday. So, the next zazenkai is in September. I'm looking forward to it. I sincerely hope that I can build a relationship with the people there and learn from them. I'll be sending an application to their English department for a part-time teaching, which is what I do, only at other universities. They have student zazenkai each Wednesday which I have been invited to attend. From September I may well be able to go every Wednesday. Fingers crosses then.

1 comment:

  1. Good article. I do practise Buddhism but not Soto Zen however there is a reason for looking at a wall when we meditate. Should you ask a Soto School the answer would be that we meditate facing a wall to see our true nature.

    A beginner might view this as meaning - a wall is so boring to look at that you cannot help but begin to look into yourself - but this is not what is meant.

    Bodhidharma inspired his students to face a wall because he knew that to the unrealised mind a wall expresses Suchness more clearly than certain other objects. To the realised mind, all express IT equally (although this too can be misinterpreted).

    When sitting in meditation you need to look at the wall, you need to see what it is expressing - when you see IT you will also see into your own true nature. Your cushion also expresses the Truth but you need to know why and how it does this more clearly than say - looking at a bird, or an insect. The bird, the insect, the cushion and the wall all express the same thing - Suchness - see IT in one and you see IT in all, including yourself. Then appearances begin to fall away.

    The ancients pointed us to things that are inanimate - look at a wall and ask yourself why?

    Hope this helps your practice.

    Little Deer