Friday, June 1, 2012


Today, after two whole months in Japan, I finally experienced Zen. What is Zen? From what I understand, a lot of people (foreigners, that is) believe Zen to be a place of peace. This is not the case! In reality, Zen is the tool used to find something similar. There are different methods of Zen, but today we did Zazen (座禅).

Zazen means quite literally Sitting Meditation. The goal is not exactly to find a place to escape to. That, actually, would be somewhat counter-productive to the purpose, since the whole point is simply to clear your mind and -at once- escape the world as well as become one with it. At least, as I understand it.

In the hall outside shoes are not allowed. Slippers are provided are worn only on the floor. When entering the hall, you walk with hands folding in front of you, step into the meditation room with your left foot first, bow before Shousou, then keep to the left as you make your way to a seat. Upon arriving at your seat, you do not sit right away. First, you put your hands together in front of you in a praying position and bow gently toward your seat. This is a polite expression towards those sitting around you, but should be performed even if you are sitting alone. Then, you turn clockwise to face the opposite direction and bow again - this time it is to those opposite you. The seats are comprised of round cushions on tatami mats on a raised platform that is lined with wood. Since the wooden part is used for eating at certain periods of the day, it is important not to touch the wood with your bottom or feet. So, you pull the cushion toward you, sit on it and pull your legs up over the wooden area (slipping shoes off in the process). Then, you scoot back and reposition your shoes so that the heels are propped up on the small bar beneath your platform.

The sitting position is simple once you've acquire it. You are supposed to sit at the edge of your cushion with your legs folded in the lotus or half lotus position. The full lotus is where your right foot rests on your left thigh and your left food rests on your right calf. The prepare yourself for meditation you must acquire the right position - meaning a straight back. So, you're supposed to sway gently from left to right a few times until gradually slowing and reaching your center, then you do the same thing backward and forward. If your back isn't entirely crooked like mine, this should set your spine straight. You should then lift your head so that your chin is level and then tuck it slightly so that your spine straightens at your neck as well. This method leaves you in the perfect position to be both sitting and leaving your diaphragm completely open to deep breathing. Before reading up for this event, I thought that the meditation would be with our eyes closed, but I was wrong. Instead, you are supposed to look about a meter in front of you (or a 45 degree angle) so that your eyes are half closed.

Once you have acquired you position, you turn your seat 180 degrees clockwise so that you face the wall and reset. Here, with your hands folded in a certain position I can only explain by pictures (second picture from the top), is where the meditation begins. The beginning and ending of sessions is marked by the ringing of a bell. After the sitting session you dismount from the seat is pretty much a reverse of how you got there and begin a second kind of meditation.

This is a walking meditation - presumably for the fact that you sit so long your legs go numb. When I say walking, I mean a slo-mo shuffle. For ten to fifteen minutes, you walk following the person on your left in such a way that by the end you have not gone far. With each breath you only take half a step. That is, when you inhale, you step and exhale. Then, inhale step and exhale. Slow breathing. A bell will ring again at the end of the walking mediation. When it does, instead of turning around to go to your seat or even assuming a new seat, you walk around the room in a circle until you arrive at your former seat. Then, repeat the process of sitting meditation. When leaving, you bow once again both to your seat and facing away from it. You then walk to your right, following your group, and step out of the room with your right foot first.

Today, we did our sitting mediation in intervals of 20 minutes. Unfortunately, I personally can't achieve a full lotus with my right foot on my left thigh and left foot on my right calf, but I can the other way around. So, for the first 20 minute session we did I sat in half lotus. It was comfortable enough at first, until I began to realize that I could feel my foot under my hand, but I could not feel my hand on my foot. At first, I was looking beneath the rim of my glasses to achieve the half-closed eyes, but I quickly got very dizzy because of the contrast of blurry and clear just above my view, so I had to adjust to looking just above my rims. Once I finally settled on looking up more, an entirely different kind of dizzy came over me. My body was tempted to sway at all, I was actually quite planted in my position, but my eyes seemed to be doing somersaults. For a good few minutes I swear all I could see was a slab of wood rapidly changing colors. The room was dimly lit to begin with, but with every breath it seemed to get darker and darker.As expected, when we finally got up to do the walking zen, it was very difficult for me to stand. Not only had my leg fallen asleep, but my ankle was in pain from the way I had it propped up. It was then that I realized the purpose of the walking zen (or at least a use), because by the time we were finished, my ankle no longer hurt. The second session of sitting we did seemed to go so much shorter than the first. Before i knew was over and we were walking home.

Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take anything into the hall besides the clothes on your back, so I was not able to take any pictures of the process (besides, that would have fubbed with my experience!), so all pictures I've posted are borrowed from Aichi Gakuin University's school website. They have a how-to on Zen here.

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