For about three or four years, I have known about, read about, and occasionally engaged in the Japanese practice of zazen, or “just sitting”. My discipline has varied, but originally inspired by the slightly more conversational tone of Soto Zen master (and former Zero Defects Bassist) Brad Warner in his book Sit Down and Shut Up, I have found something of an affinity for sitting and doing absolutely nothing, which is a lot harder than it sounds, and quite strange.
My field informants in my second village in Namibia avoided me for days when I started sitting there as unfortunately the position in which you sit to sit zazen looks quite a lot like a witching trance used to curse people. After assuring people that I had no idea how magic worked and was instead doing my best to think of nothing, a few enquired about my “Japanese religious practice”, but none fancied trying it. I used to sit every day in the field, a hallmark of the increased attention span and more ready ability to concentrate that living without wifi and screens seems to conjure, but have been less disciplined when back in Europe.
Keen to keep up some sort of reading on the subject, which is fascinating, and doesn’t ask for you to believe anything, I had a go at getting stuck into Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo, a foundational text in Soto-shu and quite readable in English with a decent translation, provided you try and picture yourself in a Japan circa 1200. I nevertheless have not necessarily got that far. It doesn’t help that in the UK and in Germany Zen Buddhism manages to not only be a fringe minority religion but also to be considered a mess of the sort of cheesy think-positive Facebook reposts that your orientalist hippie friend loves sharing. Worse, people interested in Zen inevitably end up being asked whether we are trying to find enlightenment, or connect with “the astral plane”, or whatever vaguely “Eastern Wisdom” pastiche nonsense has unfortunately been filtered down from the sadly misinformed “believe in yourself” credulous types busy trying to work out the healing power of crystals in between consulting mediums (media?).
I am an awkwardly resistant practitioner of zazen, it is safe to say, probably because of the connotations of being a white Brit into Buddhism. I am fascinated by it, particularly the benefits of a mind-body integrative practice upon mental health disorders (a cool literature review from an actual journal in evidence-based medicine is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22700446), and I have found, anecdotally, that it seems to work for at least one person. I am also fascinated by the concept of an entirely materialistic spirituality. More correctly I suppose, my reading into Zen literature and my words with practitioners lead me to the conclusion that the question of whether Zen is materialistic is a little bit unimportant. They are concerned with the here and now, flesh and blood reality, or, as they would put it: mu, nothing.
Zazen is also very normal in Japan. I was invited some weeks ago to sit with one of my friends at the Enkouji Temple, a stunning 400-year-old complex to the North of the city of Kyoto, which contains the temple itself, an array of immaculate Zen gardens and a graveyard, notable for containing, among its Buddhist inhabitants, the grave of a Muslim exchange student from Malaysia, Syed Omar, who perished in the atomic bomb in Hiroshima in 1945.
It is a beautiful place, although one upon my first visit I saw very little of, as it was still dark, and about half past five in the morning. Zen people seem like the consummate trolls (the fun kind, not the ones of 2017) in their tendency to mess with you. Morning meditation begins at 0600, which given the distance to the temple and the fact that I must travel there on a bicycle, means that my Sunday morning alarm goes off at 0445. Zazen is not, apparently, for the faint-hearted. Nor the cold-averse. It is inescapably February in Japan, a country known less for its forgiving winters than its avid snowsports scene, and not only is the Zazendo unheated but zazen is conducted with the doors and windows thrust wide open to take in the environment.At 0545, we take our seats on cushions designed to keep your bum a few centimetres from the ground, allowing one in theory to sit comfortably in the lotus position, which looks like this:
I still have trouble with my freakishly-long and bizarrely inflexible lower limbs over the whole Zazen period, but I am getting better. All set out in lines, the cushions allow for us to be close enough to others that we feel we are doing this together, but far enough away so we are not disturbed by one another. At 0600, Osho-san (the monk running the temple) rings the giant bell outside, comes inside, lights the incense, and so begins the first phase of the zazen. We sit for roughly 20 minutes, or as long as it takes for the incense to burn down to nothing.
20 minutes is quite a long time just to sit still, and one finds the “monkey mind” (as the former president of the Buddhist society at Edinburgh University used to put it) swinging from tree to tree, chasing thoughts this way and that. In Zen, there are strategies to combat this. Breathe slowly, and count your breaths from one to ten. If you lose count, or your thoughts wander off, simply start again. With no distractions, the lights off and your eyes half closed and pointed to a spot two metres in front of you on the floor, it is incredibly hard to get to ten. This is no problem, though. All you have to do is return to counting your breaths. You might get to ten next time. If you do? Start again. If you breathe properly, you can also bypass your body’s shivering reflex. Zazen is very uncomfortable at times, and comfortable at others. It is boring at times, and interesting at others. Zazen is just like reality because that is all that it is. You’re sitting in a building with the windows open.
Here is the key point: Zazen has no objective. Osho-san, as well as all of the Zen people I have read, are very clear about this. If you think you have found enlightenment, you haven’t. If you come to the Zazendo wanting to find enlightenment, you might as well go home, because you will not find what you are looking for. The clue is in the name: Za-zen: Just sitting. The point is to sit, and you are sitting, so you are achieving your point. Just to be in the room, without disappearing off on some mental journey, is surprisingly hard. When I had the Rain-Man-like concentration of my fieldwork self, I could occasionally drift away from counting the breaths to just being there, but that is not something that comes very often to me. The slow counting of your breaths, in and out, is the anchor to come back to in the moment. It is something tangible, in which you can inhabit nothing more than the room that you are in. It sounds super mystical, but in reality is the polar opposite of mystical. There is nothing there that is not real. The mind will take you on flights of fancy (usually about firesides and hot baths, damn it was cold) but you must instead return your thoughts back to the breath, which is real. It is simultaneously very simple and very difficult to do.
After 20 minutes, a small bell is rung, and we proceed to the walking meditation, a swift speed-walk around and around the Zazendo for roughly ten minutes, keeping eyes focused on the ground just in front of the feet, and hands held up at chest level, palms about five centimetres from the breast. My numb legs and freezing toes are more than grateful for the opportunity to move by this point, although forcing my feet into tiny Japanese sandals for the walk (I abandon my boatlike leather shoes at the door) is less than fun. Thankfully, nobody apart from my feet on the cold stone seem to mind me going barefoot. We then return to sitting as quickly as possible, and sit for a further 20 minutes (or one incense stick). Towards the end, Osho-san, as is tradition, walks slowly around the Zazendo holding a large wooden stick, which, if you bow to him as he passes, he will hit you four times with on the back, relatively hard. My friends tell me that the harder he hits you, the better he thinks you are doing, as he thinks you do not mind being hit harder. I still have no real idea why he does this, but as a method of keeping one “in the moment” I suppose it works.
Zazen done, we proceed to what I suppose is the equivalent of the”church hall” of the temple, a mercifully-heated room in which we prepare rice porridge along with preserved plums, greens and horseradish, and sit down to breakfast and to listen to Osho-san, who is much funnier than his stern demeanour within zazen would seem to indicate. We read the Heart Sutra aloud before eating, a difficult task for me as while I can read Hiragana (one of the three character systems and the one used for the syllable-pronounciation guide next to the complex symbolic Kanji characters) I do so very slowly at the moment. Osho-San was very interested in where I had come from, and why I was familiar with the basics of zazen, and he seems pleased that I was able to sit in the cold without fidgeting and complaints. Happily, I was invited back, and have been attending every week since. Attending so early also means we can explore the temple grounds before they open to the public (they are famously beautiful) and see the view of Kyoto.
In addition to being invited back for zazen, I was touched and very honoured this morning (Monday) to have been invited out of the blue to a tea ceremony hosted by Osho-san, along with his sensei (teacher of the tea ceremony. It takes months to learn), in the special tea room attached to his house within the temple grounds. This tea ceremony began at the relatively-late hour of 0830, and so it was a leisurely morning cycle ride up to Enkouji rather than a freezing, dark slog to attempt to wake and warm up as it is usually every Sunday.
Everything about the tea ceremony was ritualised. We must sit (or kneel really) on the floor after entering through a tiny hatch, designed so that everyone, rich or poor, no matter their status, would have to bow upon entry. This is by design. Also by design is that it is small enough that you cannot go through while wearing a katana, thus encouraging the ceremony’s ancient and more, well, violent practitioners to solve their differences with the tongue rather than the blade. Therefore, no matter my violation of protocol, I could at least be sure that I would not be cloven in two by any of my companions. It is not, incidentally, something I was particularly worried about, but the assurance is nice I guess.
The tea room is warm thanks to the fire in a small pit in the centre, and I watched keenly for all the times that I was expected to bow, accept tea, admire the bowl, drink the tea, thank Osho-San for pouring it, and laughing along with him and the others when sensei admonished him for doing occasional things wrong. She intimated that it was impossible to stop learning how to do the tea ceremony, because you can always get better. She explained and we appreciated the fact that this was the only time when we would be having tea exactly in this way, which caused us to think of the time of year we were having it, how many times we had all had it, and the things that we would talk about. It was a very enjoyable experience, though painful, as sitting on my heels like that is not something that I have much practice in.
It didn’t feel too formal, either, for a highly ritualised ceremony. This was the day after my third week sitting at the temple, and so I feel very welcome here. I think my persistence in the face of the icy mornings is noteworthy for those others attending, but I would hardly be much of a Scot if I was bothered by a little cold. We laughed and talked (through an endlessly-patient friend and translator) about where I came from, what I was doing in Japan, and when I would come back. To be invited to such an intimate gathering as this was a very great show of hospitality, and as they have managed to do every week, the people of Enkouji have made me feel not at all odd for turning up and joining in, however ham-fisted my attempts with my beginner-level Japanese can be.
This is a beautiful place to be, and to attend not only zazen but a tea ceremony, two of the things I was most keen to do while here in Japan, at the same temple with the same welcoming people, was an experience I shall not forget.
I will also not forget the feeling of my feet in tiny tiny shoes when trying to walk after kneeling for an hour.
(Thank you very much, Goodbye!)