Meditation in Japanese Zen Temples 

In Zen great stress is laid on posture, not only during the formal meditation sittings night and morning but in daily life. To the eye of an expert the posture and movements of the body reflect the inner state infallibly; conversely, the inner state is affected by the physical posture. Again and again, Zen teachers, when giving actual instruction on meditation, emphasise that meditation must be with the whole body. “People meditate with their head alone, and so have Realisation with the head alone; it is all a matter of concepts with no real life in it.”

Young monks are made to sit with one foot put up on the opposite thigh. They must be able to maintain the attitude at least forty minutes. One student told me that at the beginning sometimes they weep with the pain, but very quickly the legs become used to it. Finally they sit with each foot on the opposing thigh. The hips are slightly raised by means of a hardish cushion; the higher the hips, the easier the attainment of the correct cross-legged posture.

Lay people are allowed simply to cross their legs if their muscles are too stiff and short to enable them to reach the correct posture. Nevertheless most of them try to do it – and with progress in meditation the muscles and joints become more pliant, so that it can be said to be partly a question of nervous tension and its relaxation.

The posture has to be well-balanced and upright. To an outsider it looks stiffly straight but in fact the body is very relaxed. Head monks say it usually takes well over three years to acquire a natural unselfconscious Zen posture, and most people cannot attain it in under ten years. A good posture reflects the Zen life – outwardly apparently very rigid and austere, but inwardly relaxed and free. Again some people think of Zen as something free from all restrictions –  and so it is, outwardly; but within, it holds firmly to the tradition and never varies a hair’s breadth from it.

An experienced Zen monk, whether sitting in meditation or walking, has his spine straight and the crown of his head as if stretching toward the sky. From Zen this same posture has been adopted and studied by fencers, painters and many others in Japan who look to Zen for the source of their inspiration.

Beginners in meditation are taught to sit still and count the breaths, fixing their attention either on the tip of the nose or on the navel point. There are a number of variations in use. One method is to count from one to ten and then begin again at one. When the attention wanders, the counting tends to go beyond ten up to eleven and twelve. Sometimes it can go on as far as fifty or sixty before the novice realises what is happening.

In the meditation hall the students sit in rows and the supervisor periodically walks up and down carrying a pole slightly flattened at one end. The supervisor is a monk very experienced in meditation, and he has to be able to tell whether a student’s practice has degenerated into mind-wandering, or into blankness or sleep. When he comes across such cases he taps the offender on one shoulder with the pole. The student joins his palms and bows forward, when the supervisor hits him twice on the back about the level of the shoulder blade. These blows may be anything from light admonitions to strong blows which can be very painful, and which are used to awaken those who sink into a vacuity or into sleep.

Students receive individual instruction in meditation, and are also expected to make some study of Buddhism generally, but in Zen the main practice is the meditation sitting itself. If the student is enthusiastic and the teacher skilful, after some months there is a sort of momentary intuition of infinity within the finite mind-body. Mind and personal limitations are transcended and what is technically called the “true nature” is glimpsed.

This is a critical moment in the life of a Zen student. Generally there is a tremendous reaction afterwards in the instruments of body and mind, in the form of joy and conviction of enlightenment. The state is compared to drunkenness because in both the judgment is impaired. Drunken people believe themselves to be singing beautifully when in fact it is a cacophony; so Zen students may believe themselves inspired, enlightened and free. In fact they are unable to plunge deeply into any problem, but make up for this woolliness of mind by pronouncements in sweeping terms; they are deeply apprehensive, but excuse their evasions on the grounds of “freedom either to take or reject”; they have a mania for impressing others with accounts of their experiences, but believe themselves teachers of humanity and their fellow disciples.

A deep-seated unease, almost unconscious, generally prevents the student leaving the shelter of the spiritual community and going out into the world. If circumstances remain favourable, he may be caught in this state of surface conviction and inner tension for a long time; illness or other unfavourable circumstance may break it. The teacher’s experienced eye perceives the inner disharmony and the master himself sets about to break the precarious balance to which the student is clinging. Traditionally, stick and fist are used when necessary. Some masters frankly label a Zen student in the grip of false pride or false enlightenment a “demon”, and the demon heart has to be reduced by whatever means are necessary.

It may be after a long time that the pupil recovers his spiritual intuition, and then he again plunges himself either into the Koan riddles of the Rinzai, or into meditation on the source of thought which is the main practice of the Soto branch of Zen. The traditional period is some twenty years before ultimate Realisation which is not accompanied by violent reactions of body and mind. Only now is the Zen disciple really rooted in his true nature,without restlessness and seeking for recognition from others.

Even after Realisation it is the custom to go apart for long periods into meditation, until every element in body and mind is soaked with the Zen spirit. The process is called “maturing the holy embryo”` and eight years is considered a short time for it. After the maturing the Zen practitioner may be called to teach formally or he may not; his very life is an inspiration and he has no conscious fever of “instructing” others. It is said that such a man may, when he wishes, by one word or gesture effect a complete revolution in the way of thinking of one who meets him. He hardly ever speaks of his experience, and does nothing to attract disciples or push himself forward.

From the eaves of Japanese temples are sometimes hung small bells, very lightly made. To the clapper is attached a paper streamer which catches the wind and has written on it some phrase of illumination. There is a poem by the teacher of Dogen, the great Zen genius of Japan, which the latter acclaims as unsurpassed:

The whole body a mouth
Preaching the ultimate Wisdom;
Not caring whether the wind is from north or south, east or west


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