Recently I had the fortune to visit Soji-ji, the Head Monastery for the Soto Zen Sect of Buddhist Monks and experience Zen Meditation. Called Zazen in Japanese, this ancient art is about much more than sitting still; it incorporates awareness of the inner and outer world of each person who practices the art.
Our group had arranged for a special lesson and tour in English, and we were met by two Monk trainees, one who spoke mostly Japanese and the other who translated to us.
Zazen has many small rituals associated with it and it is indeed the small rituals that are repeated over and over again that make the entire form come alive as an art and practice. For
example, we had to fold our hands for walking down the long corridors of the monastery in a particular position – left hand in a fist facing sideways, with the thumb tucked in, and the right hand covering the left. The monks held their elbows out, and the Westerners tried to follow suit, but often let their elbows drop toward their sides.
Once we entered one of the small meditation rooms, called Sodo, we had to be silent. Each person stood in front of one pillow, called a Zafu. The Zafu sat precisely in the center of one tatami mat on a raised platform. What I didn’t know at the time was that I was sitting in a place of many purposed. There is a wooden edging around the tatami, about 6 inches wide, and that’s where the monks eat. They sleep on that tatami mat. They do their
meditation on that tatami mat. They keep their personal items in two drawers against the wall on that tatami mat. Everything they own, use or need is in that space – the space of one tatami mat, which is a standard measure in Japan, usually around 1.8 meters x .9 meters (6 feet by 1 foot, approximately). It brings a whole new meaning to simplicity and paring down a life.
Our practice began with turning the Zafu so the words stitched on it faced the
wall. Then we bowed to the wall, we bowed to the outside, and then, without putting our feet (remember, you’re barefoot for EVERYTHING in Japan) on the wooden edging, we had to get our bottoms on the Zafu and fold our legs. No easy feat. We were taught to fold our legs in a few ways while sitting on the Zafu. Those wearing a skirt were recommended to sit on their knees, the Zafu placed discreetly under them for a minimum of comfort of those knees.
We then had to turn clockwise to face the wall, keeping the Zafu under us. We had to fold our hands so the left hand sat in the right hand, thumbs lightly touching, forming a small oval. The monks said a few words about breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth – very very deeply. We were told to sway slightly to find our center of gravity, then make ourselves still. The gong rang three times and that was it – we were meditating.
My first thought was on the fact that my foot was asleep and felt like a small elephant attached to my ankle. But recently I had been told that I use my shoulders to breathe instead of my stomach, and I concentrated on making my stomach go in and out.
There was one bit of flagellation in which I did not participate. The monk called it a hand of Buddha, and there is one monk assigned to walk up and down the row with a stick, tapping and then making a smack on the shoulder of any person who is falling asleep or otherwise not fully engaged. One can ask for the hand of Buddha to strike by folding ones hands as if in prayer for a moment, if feeling unengaged, and the person next to me did it twice, causing me to jump with the loud smacking sound. She said it did not hurt, but I didn’t feel the need to ask for this practice.
Within 15 minutes the gong sounded again and we were done with the first round. We were told to get up very slowly, and we practiced a bit of walking Zazen, hands folded in walking position, walking in a small square taking only half-steps. We did that for a moment, then followed the whole procedure a second time for a second round of regular Zazen.
The second time was easier – and shorter – than the first. My feet stayed firmly awake and my mind stayed fully on the breath.
The monks took us on a full tour after the Zazen practice (pictures abound). There are so many more things to the monastery – the beautiful rooms of the head abbot, the house of Buddha, which we could not enter, and the gongs sounding for the ceremony of bells that we got to witness for just a moment after being told we were very lucky at that moment – most people don’t get to see it. We just glimpsed it and got a feel of the heavy ritual that imbues Buddhist worship. I really feel that we saw a lot, but still just touched the tip of the iceberg of what actually goes on and what there is to see.
Here’s what I learned: the whole rigmarole of getting ready for the practice, from folding the hands to enter the room, to making sure the stitching of the Zafu is in the right direction, is part of the practice, and forces one to begin the process of emptying the mind. If you are focused on very small details, there’s
no room for other thoughts. Action begets thought. It’s not about completely emptying the mind; it’s about complete awareness of the mind. An entering thought should be examined before it’s abandoned. Concentrate on that throbbing foot. Thinking about nothing else might make the pain ease. Then pick another part of the body on which to concentrate. Relax that part of the body. Really feel it. Get into it. Whether it’s your pinky toe or your left hip, actually feeling your body will lead to understanding it.
It’s not perfect, that’s why it’s called practice. Your mind wanders; your attention deviates. That’s why it’s called practice – because improvement of mind, body and spirit comes only through practice.