The Zen of Sitting


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.


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.


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.

A bit about Prof. Schulz’ paper:

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’s 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.

Go and come back

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

Photo credit: Prof. Victor Donnay

At 6:45 this morning, my colleague Marc Schulz and I arrived at Pembroke Arch to find all fifteen of our 360 students gathered, packed lightly for two weeks on the road. It’s not our first trip this semester, early this month we spent two night at the Jesuit Center outside Reading, Pennsylvania, trying out silence, so we’re already a practiced traveling band. Now we’re headed out for a longer experience, 15 days on the road, traveling to contemplative sites in Japan.

“Carry-on!” and “Hand wash!” were our motto, after four weeks of reading about simplicity in my course, we’re trying it out in the field. What comforts are you willing to leave behind if you’re going to live on top of a pillar as the desert ascetics did, or, in our case, fly at 34,000 feet and be pilgrims when we arrive?

Marc Schulz is teaching the course on the Psychology of Mindfulness in this cluster.  He noted that as we rushed through the terminal this morning the irony of not being able to stop long enough to look in the meditation room.

In my course, we’ve been talking about built space and how it might not only provide the conditions for meditation, but perhaps induce meditative states, as artist James Turrell hopes his installations might. So now we’re off to the field to experience spaces purpose-built for meditation, and places that foster meditation alongside daily life.

We begin in Tokyo, and will visit temples in Kyoto, Koya and on Tokushima, an island in the Sea of Japan. We’ll walk parts of the 88-temple Shikuko pilgrimage trail (a UNESCO heritage trail, like the Camino del Santiago in Spain.) We’ll talk about meditation and practice zazen with Buddhist abbots and monks, and visit communities that privilege simplicity of life.

One of the Augustinian friars from the community that lives down the road from the college, who lived for many years in Japan, wished me a good trip yesterday after Lauds. “Itte irasshai!” Go and come back. And so we’re off, to go and come back, to see and to experience.

I’ll be writing about the trip as we go, and if you want to follow our adventures in real time watch for #Japan360bmc and #BMC360 on Twitter and Instagram.

Spaces in translation

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

Japanese dance troupe performs at Kamikatsu.

[Ed: This post was written on Monday evening, translated forward in time!]

Mathematically, a translation takes a set of points and moves them without rotation or distorting their spatial relationships.  Today we translated from Koyasan to Kamikatsu, taking five different means of transportation (taxis, funicular, five trains, ferry and a bus )and almost ten hours.  We seem to have arrived at the other end with a minimum of distortion.

We took our leave from the temple just before 10 am, waving a formal good-bye to the head priest’s mother who came to see us off. We piled into taxis to the mountaintop station where we rode a funicular to the bottom and dove into Japan’s rail system.  We counted off 1 to 15 to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone between changes of trains from Hashimoto to Wakayama to Wakayamashi to  Wakayamako.  The weather was hot and humid, cold drinks at Hashimoto were welcome, as was the chance to explore the department store food court at Wakayama station for snacks.  (The dumplings were great.)

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

Riding the funicular down from Koyasan

The two hour ferry ride from Honshu (Japan’s largest island) to Shikoku (an island bordering the Japan’s Inland Sea) offered a chance to get a sense of the geography of Japan, and see some gorgeous views of the sunset over the water.

The bus wound its way up the Asahi-gawa River to Kamikatsu, where both dinner and a performance by a local traditional Japanese dance group awaited us.  The river is rushing by out the window, the baths are hot, there is a washing machine and we are looking forward to visiting with Nakamura-san tomorrow.

On the women’s trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women's trail

Leaving Rengejô’in to walk the women’s trail

Six students and I left the gates of Rengejô’in this morning just before 9 am, headed up to  Nyonindo – a shrine at the women’s hall.  Until the late 19th century, women were not permitted on Mt. Koya (much like Mt. Athos today), and so would climb up to these women’s halls to wait to see sons (and husbands) who had gone to Koyasan.  There were seven gates to Koya, and a hall at each gate, only this one survives.  From there we walked the Nyonimichi, the women’s trail that rings Koyasan, connected the sites of the seven halls.

walking on the trail

walking on the women’s trail

The trail can be a bit tough to follow (trail signs are in kanji for the most part), but after one false start we hiked 3 km of the 7 km trail.  The light through the cedars was beautiful, it’s the first sunny day we’ve had since Kyoto.  In places the trail clings tenuously to the edge of the mountain, and you are left with a physical sense of what “marginalized” might mean.  It was steep, with lots of spider webs, including one that functioned as a diffraction grating, splitting the light into all the colors of the spectrum.

On the way back down from the women's trail

On the way back down from the women’s trail

We turned off the trail at a small shrine and walked down a side street, stopping at one of the ubiquitous vending machines for something cold to drink (the challenge is figuring out what might be to your taste).

From there, we walked to Kongobuji, the head temple of the Shingon Buddhist sect.  The old monastery kitchen is amazing, with pots for cooking rice that are large enough to take a bath in, and rice paddles to match.  The temple has the largest dry stone garden in Japan, and a selection of beautiful painted screens. We toured the temple and garden, where Katia reminded us that Taka-san, the vice abbot at Shunko-in, had told us that these gardens are best viewed from a seated position within the hall, rather than standing on the veranda.  To my eye at least, the gardens gain a depth from that perspective, reminiscent of a 19th century landscape painting.

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

Tea and sweet rice cookies at Kongobu-ji

We enjoyed tea in the temple, with a sweet rice cookie and the puffed rice that Michelle had bought.

A tour of the Reihokan museum, with its frightening figures of the four heavenly kings (see photos here) and quite incredible 17th century map of the enclave finished off the morning.  We talked a bit about the ways in which contemplative spaces are marked out, how do you signify who is allowed in and who is not?

We went in search of lunch at an izakaya.  We enjoyed rice bowls, curries and tempura udon at this Japanese equivalent of a pub, and I think everyone got what she wanted even though we had no recourse to an English menu.


In the courtyard at Rengejô’in

In the courtyard at Rengejô’in

We are settled into Koya-san for the next three days, with the students free to explore the nearly 50 temples and shrines that dot the hillsides of this 1200 year old mountain town.  Abby says she is still contemplating  our hike up to the waterfall at Kumano, turning over the difference between walking to get somewhere in particular, or to get into shape, and moving for an interior purpose.  It was a profound experience, she says.

Walking the graveyard with Prof. Glassman at Okonuin

Walking the graveyard with Prof. Glassman at Okonuin

Late in the afternoon we walked the cemetery at Okunoin, the full hour up to the mausoleum at the top where Kobo Daishi, the monk who founded the monastic enclave at Koya sits in eternal meditation.  Perhaps as many as 500,000 people have been buried at Koyasan over the last millenia.  Prof. Glassman’s latest book was on images of Gizo, a Buddha who is often invoked as a protector of children.  There are many Gizo images in the graveyard, and we enjoyed Glassman’s commentary as we climbed.  He told the students about discovering these images just before he began college.

Alex noted that it’s an odd feeling to walk a graveyard as a tourist, in our case unable to read the inscriptions.  This particular cemetery, with its ancient cedar trees and thick moss blankets draped over 15th century cenotaphs invited reflection.

Walking Okonuin

Walking Okunoin

Prof. Glassman celebrated a significant birthday today, and we managed to find someone to bake two chocolate cakes and (the more difficult task) birthday candles in tiny Koya. Our monastic hosts provided a lighter and knife to cut the cake (though the students were all set to tackle the latter problem with chopsticks).

Rough travel

Kosho briefs students on the morning

Kosho briefs students on the morning

I am sitting on the porch at Rengejô’in on Mt. Koya, where we will be staying for the next three nights. The students are sleeping on futons spread on the tatami in four rooms adjacent to mine, I can hear their voices through the sliding shoji screens. My room faces onto a moss garden, beautifully lit. The rooms on the opposite side face a beautiful karensansui, a dry rock garden. We arrived here just in time for the evening meditation, led by the head priest of this temple (who is also the head of the Shingon sect, headquartered here). It was dim in the low-ceilinged main hall, lit with elaborately perforated gold lanterns and a few candles in the front. It was warm, enclosed, still and very silent. We sat for 30 minutes, then heard a short talk from the priest about meditation.

Hiking up the gorge, this was a relatively easy section

Hiking up the gorge, this was a relatively easy section

We spent the morning and early afternoon in Kumano, hiking a rough trail led by Kosho, a priest in the esoteric Buddhist tradition, to a waterfall up the mountain. It was a tough hike, we clambered up stone walls on the side of a dam, scrambled across boulder fields, and went up and down ladders over walls. We forded a small stream, hopping from stone to stone and kept a sharp eye out for vines on the ground that could trap a wary ankle. We chanted as we went, “Sange, sange…” and Kosho blew a conch shell from time to time.

Kayla by the waterfall

Kayla by the waterfall

The waterfall was spectacular, and Kosho did a short ceremony for us there, blessing those who wished while they stood under the waterfall. After a difficult and steep climb we were hot and sweaty. The water was bracingly cold, and standing under it, feeling it pound me and pound around me was a startlingly sacred experience. Afterwards, Kosho played a haunting tune on his ocarina.

We pulled out dry shirts and pack towels and hiked back down the mountain to Kosho’s shrine, where we celebrated a short fire ceremony. Kosho’s practice is rich in postures, his hands move expertly to form mudras and he is precise with beads and sticks. One of the questions my class has been exploring is the role of the body in contemplative practices, so this raises many questions, particularly in this sort of setting where the ritual work is not so much an individual act, but one that is shared.

Kosho plays the ocarina under the waterfall

Kosho plays the ocarina under the waterfall

The hike down was as much a challenge as the walk up, and the faculty members asked the students if when we asked them on the application for the program if they were willing to “travel rough” was what they imagined?

It was a windy 4 hours on the bus from Kumano to Koya, but we made it in time for the evening meditation and dinner. Towards the end of dinner, the previous head priest’s wife came out. She is 93 years old, and studied English in Toyko just before World

A noodle feast after a rough hike

A noodle feast after a rough hike

War II. She spoke about her experiences in Koyasan during that period, and gave us a short orientation to the history (sacred and secular) and geography of the area. An amazing story to listen to.

We swtich to a more contemplative pace here, with time to walk to the many temples, and the graveyard at Okuno-in, and to sit in the gardens here and experience more deeply the ways in which these spaces work to support the work of contemplation.

Borrowed landscapes


Students at Ryoan-ji

Our day began early again, at 5:30 am for those who walked up to Chion-in for the morning services.  We packed up, put our luggage on the bus and headed to Ryoan-ji, perhaps the most iconic of the karesansui, the dry Japanese Zen gardens.

These dry gardens were often constructed for night meditations in front of the abbot’s quarters, the purpose of the white stones is to reflect moonlight.  The garden at Ryoan-ji in the bright sunshine and heat of a Kyoto autumn day is a bit of a different space than at night, I suspect.  And the rich mix of tourists, from Japanese school children here on field trips to couples with tour guides, and us, makes it far less still and silent than it would be “in use.”


Practicing English and Japanese

The school children on field trips to these places have assignments from their English teachers to practice their English, generally with some prompts for questions to ask:  Where are you from?  Why are you here?  What is most important to you?  Our students enjoyed practicing their Japanese in return.  They got more practice in reading Japanese as they tried to negotiate the vending machines to find something cool to drink.

Will we get something cold to drink that we will enjoy?

Will we get something cold to drink that we will enjoy?

Daitoko-ji is a complex of Rinzai Zen monasteries on the edge of Kyoto.  We visited two of the cloisters within the monastery:  Daisen-in and Zuiho-in.  Both have beautiful dry gardens, though on some level these are less abstract than the one at Ryoan-ji.  You aren’t allowed to photograph the gardens at Daisen-in, so I had to stick to postcards. The garden wraps around the dojo, a stream that eventually opens into a garden that is just groomed white rocks, with two cones, the better to reflect the moonlight in the garden.

The main garden at Zuiho-in

The main garden at Zuiho-in

From there we went to Zuiho-in, which has to my mind the most beautiful of all the dry gardens I have seen.  The large garden is meant to represent a heavy sea with the sand all piled up to represent high waves.  It’s focussing on one level, despite the clear chaos you can sense underlying the stillness.  It reminds me of Marty Laird’s comment in Into the Silent Land that contemplation isn’t “snorting lines of euphoric peace” but a particular way of sitting with chaos.

Poetics of space

Poetic space 2 Poetic spaceThis week in the course on contemplation in the Western tradition we are reading excerpts from Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space.  What is the connection between the spaces we inhabit and our minds? our souls?  How can we read what a space has to tell us? Do spaces have memories? Subtexts? Bachelard is developing a frame for thinking about  such questions.

Class moved outside, testing the ways in which the space shaped our conversation.  This outdoor space was bounded subtly by rugs and chairs, no hard edges.

Later this week, we are off to read a quite different space, a silent monastic experience.