The following article is a bit of a break from the usual in that we are not necessarily writing an entry that merely describes a concept. When looking at the cultural pursuits section, it was felt that while we had covered some areas that may be utilitarian in some sense, we had never really covered a cultural pursuit that could be used over the course of one’s life.
With meditation and Eastern spirituality gaining a foothold in certain parts of the West, it was felt that it would be ideal if we wrote an article on this. With this being said, meditation and spirituality is a HUGE topic and a lay person such as myself couldn’t really do it justice. To this end, I made the trek to Kakudai Temple in Okazaki to interview the head monk, Abbott Sano (who is descended from 3 generations of Buddhist monks) to get a rough overview of what meditation is and how one might approach it if they were to start practicing it.
I knew straight away that I was in a very traditional Japanese environment when I was offered strong maccha tea and sweets reserved to greet, in Sano’s words and not mine, very important guests (which I embarrassingly didn’t know the appropriate method of drinking!).
The following is a collaboration of the main points that were made during the course of the interview. We have put in some links for those who wish to further explore the concepts bought up in this article.
Question: What are the main teachings of Buddhism?
Answer: The purpose of Buddhism is to insure human happiness. How this is achieved varies depending on the type of Buddhism one practices. For example, I am a member of the Rinzai school of Buddhism which promotes Zen Buddhism which itself emphasizes looking after and improving after your inner state.
The soul is like a mirror. The role of Zen Buddhism is to make it as clear and iridescent as the first day you first received it. Achieving this state is related to how happy one is. The way to clean the mirror up is through meditation. It’s like sweeping the floor or wiping surfaces but it’s a cleaning of your spirit. Through Zen meditation we are able to cleanse our spirit, achieve a state of nothingness and thusly, attain happiness for ourselves. Once this happiness is realized, one then can focus on bringing happiness to others.
Q: What are the differences between the various sects of Buddhism? For example, what is the difference between Tibetan Buddhism and Rinzai Buddhism?
A: It’s said by some that Tibetan Buddhism is a more mystic form of Buddhism. The main objective of Tibetan Buddhism is sort of a form of wish fulfillment through prayer.
Zen differs in that its first goal is purification of the soul. To achieve this, we need to cleanse our souls by the practice of Zen meditation. There are many forms of Buddhism in Japan that don’t practice Zen Buddhism but each have their own special ways of pursuing happiness. For example, some sects emphasize spiritual practice, such as isolating oneself on a mountain side or standing under a waterfall and allowing the water to pour down on oneself. These are some of the differences between certain forms of Japanese Buddhism.
Q: Some of these can involve fasting?
A: Yes, that can be the case.
Both the Rinzai and Souto schools of Buddhism are both Zen schools of Buddhism. Both sects practice Zen meditation in some form and through this, practitioners are able to cleanse their souls.
Q: How would one go about becoming a Buddhist monk? What kind of training is involved?
A: This depends on the sect that you are involved in. Rinzai and Soto Buddhism have specialist dojos which one can attend. Prospective monks have to undertake spiritual training at these locations over a period of 3 years in order to acquire the necessary training.
Q: How would you enroll in one of these dojos?
A: Of course, you would have to submit an application form to the dojo that you wanted to enroll in. Upon approval of the application, you will need to shave your head completely bald at which point you will start the necessary spiritual practice to become a Buddhist monk.
I can’t say this is 100% accurate but generally one heas to spend about 3 days in the entrance of the dojo, crouched down and requesting to be allowed to enter. You are required to maintain this posture for the entirety of the day but you are able to take toilet and meal breaks if given permission. After this period of 3 days, you will be required to undertake five consecutive days of Zen meditation. Similar to the time that you are required to wait in the entrance, you can take toilet and meal breaks.
When the three days of waiting and five days of Zen meditation are finally complete only then can you start the spiritual practice required to become a monk. This initiation is conducted in both Rinzai and Soto schools of Buddhism. It’s a case of gaining permission first then undertaking the training.
Q: Could you explain in lay terms the benefits of Zen meditation?
A: Zen meditation is useful in 3 ways. The first way is that it recalibrates your posture. The second way is that it helps with your breathing. The third way is that it is spiritually beneficial.
When these three areas become properly aligned, the end result is good health. Practicing Zen meditation for an extended period of time can make us healthy as well as bring about other positive outcomes.
Q: How does Zen meditation help in recalibrating one’s posture?
A: Your body naturally runs in a straight line along your spine; spanning from your head to your buttocks. Zen meditation straightens this line up. There are a few ways you are able to sit during meditation. There are some who are physically unable to truly cross their legs because of their legs hurting or going numb. They are able to sit in a less conventional stance.
Regardless of which stance you use, Zen Meditation should straighten your posture. You can even do it standing up if you so choose. You don’t need to cross your legs per se and, for this reason, it can be done anytime and anywhere.
When talking about Zen meditation, achieving a straight posture is essential. If you posture bends or you start to slouch, then it will start to hurt, you will get tired and this will ultimately render your meditation meaningless. This will not happen if you maintain good posture. A straight posture is important and will insure that your body won’t begin to tire.
During an organized meditation session, a meditation teacher will often go around his students to observe their facial expressions and posture. If they see a student with a pained expression, they will tap them lightly on the shoulders with a short stick to let them know that they need to improve their posture.
Q: We have just discussed how Zen meditation improves one’s posture. How does it improve one’s breathing?
A: When meditating, you slowly and repeatedly expel the air that you have breathed in as well as breathing out slowly. By doing this, we believe you are able to extend your life span.
A good example of how slower biological functions can lead to longer life is the elephant. An elephant’s heart rate is incredibly slow but its life span is long. On the other hand, a mouse’s heart rate is incredibly fast and it only lives for a short time.
Anger leads to heightened biological functions such as increased heart rate. Anger not only has a negative effect on our heart but also on our psyche. For this reason, those who anger easily tend to have shorter life spans.
The key for a longer life is to slow down our biological functions by achieving happiness through Zen meditation.
Q: Do we need to control other kinds of emotions in order to lead a long life? Also, does Rinzai Buddhism discourage attachments to external objects such as friends, cars etc.?
A: Things like friends are important. We can’t live without other people. We rely on their energy to live our own lives. However, we can’t become completely dependent on our friends.
I wouldn’t say relying on your friends is a bad thing. We need to value the things that are important and time spent with friends is something that is important.
It’s OK to have things that we like such as cars and planes and there is no problem in pursuing them as hobbies. However, we mustn’t become prisoner to these things. This ultimately ends up hurting us and can become a source of trouble in our lives. We need balance in our external interests. A good example of the kinds of attachment we need to avoid is our hair. People go bald and get grey hair. They thusly feel troubled over this. Why do they feel stressed over this? Because they had hair in the first place and as they begin to lose their hair, that’s when their troubles start. It’s the same with owning a car. We become stressed due to the car existing in the first place. If we lose the things that we are held captive to, our stress would ultimately be reduced to nothing.
There’s nothing wrong with merely liking something. We all have things that we like and dislike but it’s when these things become an attachment that trouble starts. People by their nature tend to see life in terms of opposites. We see things in terms of things that we like versus those that we don’t. Things that are either good or bad. Advantageous or disadvantageous. We need to stop looking at life in such terms, as this is the route to unhappiness, and take the middle road. Looking at things as black and white leads to anger, stress and conflict. Therefore, Buddhism veers more towards the middle ground.
Q: Could you tell us of the origins of Zen meditation?
A: About 2500 years previously, Gautama Buddha tried many different methods to achieve enlightenment. After a lot of trial and error, he ultimately came up with the concept of Zen meditation. It was through Zen meditation that he was able to achieve enlightenment and through one consecutive week of Zen meditation practice: happiness.
This was the birth of the Buddhist religion, whose aim was to make people as Gautama Buddha was when he achieved enlightenment.
Q: Can you tell us about the kinds of sects that practice Zen meditation?
A: Zen meditation is practiced by those adhering to Zen Buddhism. Two of these are the Rinzai and Soto sects. Differences between how they approach meditation is that the Rinzai sect has its practitioners have their backs against the wall whilst meditating. Soto meditation involves facing the wall while meditating.
Q: Could you tell us a about how one actually practices Zen meditation?
A: As was mentioned earlier, the aim of Zen meditation is to realign the mind, breath and posture. Firstly, you put your inner calf and on top of your other leg. If you are unable to do this, you can adjust your legs accordingly with both aligning with your tailbone.
You then raise your hand and create the shape of a circle. You then take your thumb and grasp your hand with it.
From that point, you need to allow your body to from a straight line from the top of your head to your buttocks. Once that’s achieved, cast your gaze to a spot 1 meter away and leave your eyes half open. Essentially, your eyes should look like the statues of the Buddha that one sees. Closing your eyes completely is not allowed. They should be half open. It is from this position that one looks out into the world from their inner self while also observing their own inner states.
Once posture is established, we move onto breathing. As was said earlier, breathing in Zen meditation involves slowly and repeatedly inhaling and exhaling. The last part we focus on is recalibrating our inner state. The goal here is to try to achieve a sense of nothingness. This is quite difficult. You can sit down and meditate for 5 years consecutively and still not achieve this. So in lieu of this, one should focus initially on their breath. A good way of doing this can involve breathing to a particular rhythm and counting forward from one. By focusing on counting, we block out any distracting thoughts like what happened has to us during the day or what we have to do tomorrow. To achieve this state of emptiness, we think of these numbers instead.
Q: We did cover it briefly before but could you tell us more about why monks sometimes hit their students with a stick while they are meditating?
A: The first reason is to stop people from falling asleep. If people start falling asleep during meditation, hitting them on the shoulders will wake them up. Furthermore, their legs may begin to ache and their shoulder may start to get stiff. They will start to tire and feel uncomfortable. In this case, we hit them softly to alert them that they need to change their posture. A correct posture will get rid of any stiffness in their shoulder or numbness that they are feeling.
Q: Some people from a Western background may see getting hit by a stick as a punishment but that is not the thinking behind this is it?
A: If people fall asleep then it can be viewed as punishment. It’s viewed mostly as helping out the person who is meditating. It’s a way of getting rid of the pain that one might feel whilst meditating. It’s a fairly common practice in Zen Buddhism.
Q: Do you hold meditation workshops at Kakudai Temple? If yes, when?
A: We periodically hold meditation classes on the second and fourth Thursday of every month.
Q: Can those at a beginner level of Japanese take these classes?
A: Those who can’t speak a lot of Japanese can be taught to move their bodies into the right posture. Beyond that, I think you should be able to speak some Japanese to get the most out of the classes. If those who can speak some Japanese were to come along then that would be great.
Q: Do you have any advice for those who would like to try out Zen meditation for the first time?
A: First of all, relax and come along with an open mind. It would be also preferable if you came along with a real interest in the practice but also a relaxed attitude. Meditation isn’t meant to be an ordeal; it’s supposed to be calming.
Lots of people think meditation is difficult. TV and other forms of media show meditation as something where you get hit and you have to sit still for 3 hours straight. That is true in a sense but we view meditation as being similar to yoga. It’s something that loosens up the body and relaxes you. If you view meditation as a way to cleanse your inner state, you will not find meditation taxing at all.
This generation we live in exposes us to many kinds of information and we often get bombarded. Because of this state of affairs, I believe meditation is very necessary. Meditation is a chance for one to clear unnecessary thoughts from our mind, clear out the cobwebs from it and relieve stress
Q: How do you think Buddhism will precede in the West from this point onwards?
A: I’d be happy if more people in the West had an interest in Buddhism. For some reason, Buddhism’s message isn’t resonating as it should. Japanese people tend to not self-advertise especially and this is the same as Japanese Buddhism I feel. Some Westerners may view Buddhism as very rigid and full of rules about things you can’t do.
However, I believe that Buddhism for some Westerners maybe more enjoyable than they think. There might be certain parts such as how tea is drunk that might be fun and more profound than they may think with fewer rules than expected. It differs to other religions in this sense.
The ‘rules’ in Buddhism are a lot broader. For example, we not only mingle with those other faiths but we also respect their beliefs.
Q: Is there anything that might get in the way of someone being able to understand Buddhist concepts?
A: No matter one’s generation, new things will come along that will pique the interest of the masses. This constant refocus on the new can be an impediment. As time passes, people may refocus on attachments of the past and this can also be an obstacle.
Q: An attachment to the material can be an impediment?
A: Yes, I think so.
Q: Has the rise of modern capitalism seen a decrease in the number of followers of Buddhism?
A: I think so. It may or may not be an impediment.
Q: Do you have a message for those who have an interest in Zen meditation?
A: As was said earlier, Zen meditation does have rules but it isn’t as restrictive as some may think. Come with a laid back attitude and you should be fine.
Q: Thank you for making the time to speak today. It is greatly appreciated.
A: My pleasure. Likewise.
How to get there
Kakudai Temple, a temple boasting around 300 years of history but according to Sano San is still ‘quite young’, is located at 49 Gounaka, Nobata Cho, Okazaki, Aichi Prefecture. It is accessible by foot (roughly 10 mins) if you take the number 12 bus from Okazaki station to the last stop on the route.
The YAMASA Institute is not necessarily promoting a particular set of sectarian values or encouraging people to join a particular faith. We wrote this article due to many Westerners having an interest in meditation and due to language barriers often being an issue when they look to practice it in Japan.