Thursday, July 14, 2011

Japan: 2011 Summer Fellows - An Introduction to Zazen

I’ve now been studying at the Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies in Yokohama, Japan long enough to get a feel for the program. It describes itself as intensive, and this is not a misnomer. We have four hours of class each day conducted entirely in Japanese, followed by roughly three hours of homework. Class consists of giving speeches, discussing readings (typically essays written by Japanese professors), reviewing vocabulary and set phrases, discussing news and current events and open discussion, led by a different student each day.
Every Friday we are treated to a group outing, and our first trip was to Kenchō-ji, the oldest Zen monastery in Japan (first built in 1253). We knew that we would get to try our hand at zazen, or Zen meditation. Most of us, including the instructors, expected we’d meditate for about five minutes and then go on a tour of the temple and learn about its history and interesting points. The monk leading us, however, had other ideas. We meditated for three ten minute segments, broken up by lectures from the monk during which we could stretch our legs.
Many people are probably familiar with the lotus position and the half-lotus position. I discovered I could only perform the latter, and even that grew extremely painful after more than a few minutes. The monk assured us that the pain was a part of the experience, as one had to be able to concentrate through it. Many students had no problem sitting as such for sustained periods of time. A few of them (and one of the instructors) actually fell asleep. How they did this is a mystery to me, but by the third segment I was forced to abandon my progress toward enlightenment and sit cross-legged.
The monk’s lectures, in addition to being a welcome chance to relax, were quite interesting. They chiefly discussed the role and nature of Zen in the modern world. According to him, though Japan, and the rest of the world, has changed tremendously since Zen first came to Japan, people’s spiritual needs are still the same. He referred to Zen as a “conversation with one’s heart” in which one can examine life without becoming entangled in it.
The meditation itself consisted of counting our breaths up to ten and then starting over. I clearly was never meant to be a monk, because I can only describe my first attempt at zazen as boring and painful. The second segment of meditation was just as painful, but as the scent of incense filled the room and the silence was broken only be the occasional bird call, a certain sense of calm fell over all of us. By the third segment I had abandoned my half-lotus, so I was significantly more comfortable. A breeze was blowing through the main hall of the temple, and the atmosphere was serene enough that we forgot the oppressive heat outside.
I can’t say that anything magical happened during our meditation. I suspect that if one were to sit anywhere in silence for forty-five minutes without a TV, phone, books, or any other stimuli, one would feel calm and reflective. However, even though I don’t have any intention of abandoning my studies for the monastic life, the visit did impress upon me the importance of taking time to sit and just be. It left me feeling good for the rest of the day, and put me in a wonderfully contemplative mood that I rarely felt during the hustle and bustle of the school year. Perhaps next time I’ll even be able to sit properly for the whole experience.
Connor Cislo
MA International Affairs 2012
Sigur Center 2011 Asian Language Fellow
Inter-University Center for Japanese Language Studies, Japan

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