The Zen of Sitting

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Students waiting for meditation session at Shunko-in in Kyoto.

We walked as pilgrims on the Kumano Kodo on our way into Kyoto, and trekked from Myoshin-ji to Kyoto through to Osaka, changing stations there, and are now at last on the train to Mount Koya, a Buddhist enclave up in the mountains. Pilgrims again, everything we own on our backs, trying not to lose the trail, threading our way through the commuter rush instead of through the cedar forests.

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Rev. Taka Kawakami, vice abbot of Shunko-in give students a tour of the temple

In Kyoto we walked a lot, but we came here to learn to sit, to practice zazen. We stayed at the Shunko-in temple in the large complex on the outskirts of Kyoto, Myoshin-ji. On Saturday morning, we did a meditation training session in English with the vice abbot of the temple, Rev, Taka Kawakami. He talked about flexibility as a state of mind, reflected in the body. Stiff when you get up off the meditation cushion? It’s ok to sit in a chair. Be flexible. He spoke a bit about the intersection between neuroscience, psychology and Buddhist practice – perfect for this 360 which sits at that intersection point as well. There was a fun moment of connection when he referred to a longitudinal study, The Harvard Study of Adult Development, on which Marc Schulz is a co-investigator (and has a new paper out this week!) and one of the 360 students is using data from for her thesis.

From Shunko-in we went to Tenryu-ji, a 14th century Zen training monastery set in a historic garden (now a UNESCO world heritage site). There we met with Thomas Yuho Kirchner, an American and Zen monk who entered Shofuko-ji monastery in 1971. He gave us an introduction to the monastic schedule, and the training young monks would be given. We practiced zazen, sitting meditation, in the hall where the monks in training would practice, eat and sleep, wrapped in thick square futons.

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Zen monk Thomas Yuho Kirchner with kaiseku

Attention could drift during long meditation sessions, and so the kaisaku was employed, a flat stick whacked across the shoulder blades, sometimes called the stick of compassion. Thomas Kirchner demonstrated its use on me. You bow to each other, then cross your arms and round your back for two quick slaps on each shoulder. It stings, sharpening your senses and much like a deep massage, refreshes. In my course we’ll talk a bit about the relationship between pain and contemplative practice. It’s a fascinating topic, criss-crossing psychology and spirituality.

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot's garden at Zuiho-in

Students sitting on the veranda overlooking the abbot’s garden at Zuiho-in

On Sunday we visited another large temple complex, Daitoku-ji, to tour Daisin-in and do a last meditation training before heading to Kyosan. The iconic Zen dry rock gardens, and nightingale floors – which squeak as you walk on them, were highlights of this temple. We also toured Zuiho-in, which I think might have my favorite rock garden, one with deep standing waves.

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A bit about Prof. Schulz’ paper: http://campaign.r20.constantcontact.com/render?m=1102398051702&ca=1a06f66e-a651-4127-bdf3-a5a2b4ab01ed

Reading silence in the city

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The Ueno Park in Tokyo is a fascinating place. On one end is the Ueno zoo: a place filled with bright colors and joyful schoolchildren, who are amazed by the beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom . On the other end there are also seekers of beauty, but of a different kind. Littering the various shrines and temples are adults – office-goers, homemakers, senior citizens and tourists alike – who are looking for a quiet space to reconnect spiritually with nature, God or both.

This morning I found myself in one such place. Benten hall is situated in the middle of a pond filled with large, green water plants. The greenery formed a comfortable buffer, protecting the space from the hectic city life and providing people with a serene perspective of one of the busiest cities in the world. From what I gathered Benten Hall or Benten-do is a Buddhist temple dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of fortune, music and wisdom (Wikipedia), which explained the temple‚Äôs popularity. However, I was more interested in the little sitting area on the side of the temple overlooking the surrounding pond. There were several people sitting there but it appeared to be a silent space. Some read, some listened to music and some just took in the view. One man had brought breadcrumbs with himself and spent hours feeding the pigeons in the park. A bunch of strangers sitting together in silence might appear strange to some (the trope of mysterious-silent-stranger-who’s-up-to-no-good coming into play here ) but the silence that was shared at the sitting spot was comfortable, even welcoming.IMG_0117

Thus I sat on a bench near the water, listening to the silence around me, the gentle lapping of water playing as a soft background music. My breaths became deeper and my mind emptied of all the anxiety-inducing plans I had of exploring all of Tokyo in one day. For a brief period of time, I just paid attention to the moment: the feeling of the breeze on my skin, the changing colors of the sky, the soft cooing of the pigeon roaming around me.
When I left the temple, I certainly felt very fortunate to have experienced that brief, unexpected moment of mindfulness in the little oasis of Benten-do.