Ema boards

D6: Shazam, zazen! My meditation misfortunes

During the Fall Festival in Inokashira Park, which 1) you may remember from this post I wrote days ago, when I was talking about our fifth day in Japan, and 2) turns out, now that we’ve been in Japan for two Saturdays, was not in fact a one-off festival but seems to happen every Saturday in our little park, Don noticed a sign at the Zen temple in the park that said there would be a zazen session open to the public the very next morning, and beginners were welcomed.

So naturally, I wanted to go.  And naturally, Don volunteered to get up early with me…and make me breakfast before I went.  He had absolutely no interest in joining me to translate an early morning seated meditation session run by Zen monks.  No problem, I thought.  I’ve read quite a bit on this kind of meditation, only from a Chan Buddhist perspective (the Chinese term for Zen Buddhism – Buddhism came to Japan via China and is heavily influenced by Chan Buddhism, but of course Zen has also adapted its own particular flavors, if you will). I can totally do this on my own. Besides, it’s meditation.  There’s not a lot of speaking anyway.

I arrive at the temple in the park just as the session is scheduled to begin…and there doesn’t seem to be anything happening.  There are a handful of people visiting the temple, but they seem to be either tourists or people paying their respects in the usual way – outside the building, which seemed locked to the public.  Bewildered, I look around and see a family of what appear to be tourists (somewhat schlubby clothes, cameras – just like me) but who, luckily for me, also appear to be and speak Japanese.  They ask the woman at the talisman booth something, and point to a sign that looks similar to the sign Don read to me the day before.  The woman selling the temple’s good luck charms is clearly giving directions to them, and they seem concerned – they are definitely not where they want to be.  They take off running.

And I take off right after them, following just two steps behind.  I am behaving like a creepy stalker, but I have no idea what the temple official told them, so all I can do is hope they don’t turn around and yell at me – or even ask me what I’m doing, since I won’t know the difference or how to respond.

Inokashira Temple
Temple in Inokashira Park - dedicated to Benzaiten, goddess of all that flows

Luckily, the temple where the open zazen is happening is not too far outside the park, and we arrive just as they are preparing to close the temple doors.  We quickly remove our shoes and are ushered inside, to the main area of the temple.  In the back of the zendo, or meditation hall, there is an elaborate altar area set up with various devotional items.  In the mid-section, the largest part of the zendo, there are three sections of tatami mats, and atop the tatami, spaced in neat, even rows are zabutons (the low, flat pillow-shaped mats each person sits on), with a zafu (the big, round pillows to be placed under oneself during meditation to enhance proper zazen posture), and a sheet of folded paper on each zafu. As we are ushered in, a woman directs the family to three seats in the back far corner.

She directs me, however, to the open zabuton in the front row, dead center. Lacking the language to explain to her that this will only lead to mass confusion for everyone seated around and behind me, I merely gesture incredulously.  She smiles and nods reassuringly, yes, that is exactly where she is telling me to sit.

As I sit, I observe the woman seated to the right of me, who is seated in lotus position and smiles confidently at me.  Oh good, she knows what she’s doing.  I can just watch her out of the corner of my eye.  She is wearing little black socks, I notice – the kind Erin showed me that have really good arch support.

But then I notice something out of the corner of my left eye.  The older man sitting to my left is gesturing urgently at me – to take off my socks.  I repeat the gesture, to be sure I understood, and once I’ve removed my socks, he gives me a brief nod, which I hope marks his approval (and not simply his thinking, thank goodness the obnoxious American has finally stopped defiling these zabutons.)  It turns out, one does not wear socks while seated on the zabuton. So much for the woman next to me….

Finally, two monks enter, and the one who is more elaborately dressed asks the audience something, which I’m pretty sure was either “How many of you have practiced zazen before?” or “How many of you have never practiced Zazen before?”  He says something with a reassuring gesture, and then launches into a lengthy explanation of what will occur.

Of which I understand nothing.  I try hard to pay attention, figuring 1) that would at least be the more “Zen” thing to do and 2) this is the best way to learn Japanese, right? Being immersed in it?  Almost immediately after, I find myself focusing on how beautiful the more senior monk’s robes are – they are a beautiful blue green ombre  in parts, and yellow in the other parts, and they are made of a light, open weave fabric that is at once gauzy and yet structured and elegant.  I spend the next several minutes trying to recall whether I know the name for that kind of fabric, while paragraphs and paragraphs of Japanese words and Zen wisdoms fly right over my head.

Wishes for blessings
Wishes for blessings

Finally, the less senior monk (I assume, since he’s in less flashy robes), who has been sitting to the side, gets up and walks over to the middle of the room, practically right in front of me.  He makes some bows, then picks up the zafu and places it on the zabuton, and sits in lotus position.  Then he demonstrates half lotus, and then half-lotus the other way….finally!  A visual!  I’ll be fine. As the senior monk explains all of these positions, the junior monk demonstrates the proper posture for sitting meditation, including pushing your hips out to help straighten the spine.  The head monk even holds up a two-inch thick piece of wood about four or five feet long, and holds it against the junior monk’s spine, to demonstrate just how straight his spine is, and that his backside, spine and head are all in precise and proper alignment.

The junior monk demonstrates how to hold one’s hands while meditating: elbows out to the sides, right hand palm up, left hand palm up and place left fingers on top of right fingers, slowly bring thumbs together so they are barely touching.  Everyone in the audience practices this with the monk, so I do as well.  Not so hard, I think…until the junior monk looks at me in surprise, and gives a small, subtle shake of his head.  Oh crap.  Now the monk is surreptitiously trying to help me out.  I am hopeless!  He moves his arms up and then down, ever so slightly.  I do too. He gives the barest little nod with his head, which I interpret as indicating I’ve fixed whatever I was doing wrong.  I am puzzled: my arms are exactly as they were before he corrected me.

Then the junior monk bows low to the senior monk, who takes the wooden board and traces it over the arc of the junior monk’s back as he is bent low in the bow, and the senior monk explains something.  The senior monk then taps on one side of his back three times, tap, tap, tap, and then on the other, tap, tap, tap.  Ah, he must be explaining the importance of not just sitting straight, but having your shoulders back and relaxed and in the proper position as well, I think.  Then they lead us in some stretches so we are ready to sit meditation.  These are easy to follow.

This is fantastic, I think.  Here I am, in Japan! Preparing to do a seated meditation! At a Zen temple! And I’m totally getting it, even though I don’t speak a word of it. Ah, see, ritual and religion…these things really do have the power to transcend such mundane differences as language.  And to think I was worried about whether I could handle this, even just a few moments back.

And so we begin.  The head monks moves to the back of the room. The woman next to me moves her zafu from in front of her zabuton to under her, and I start to do the same.  Again, a frantic gesturing out of the corner of my left eye.  The man shakes his head, disapprovingly.  I promptly put it back. The woman looks at me sheepishly and puts hers back too.

Instead, we pick up the sheets of paper and unfold them.  They are written in Japanese, of course, and the only kanji I recognize is the one for “stop.”  I assume these are sutras. The monk leads the chant and the audience follows.  I try repeating the sounds I hear, but as some of you may know, I don’t always hear that well, and I can tell that, despite my best effort, the sounds coming out of my mouth are not the same sounds coming out of the mouth of the woman next to me (though at this point, I don’t know whether to trust her or me more).  The chanting is beautiful, so I decide to just listen and enjoy, rather than inadvertently say something inappropriate.

The main monk closes the chanting with a few words, and now everyone moves their zafus.  The man on my left gives me a pointed nod.  The woman next to me places hers in no particular order under her, completely on the zabuton. I do the same.  Why have I not learned to stop looking to her for direction?!  I look around the room.  Everyone else’s is only half on the zabuton.  I fix mine.  There is a tiny white stripe on the otherwise black zafu.  Everyone else’s is lined up towards the back of the room.  I fix mine.  The man to the left gives me a nod. (Why is no one correcting the woman to my right?)

Statue at the temple
Statue of (presumably) the Goddess Benzaiten

We all sit silently for a little while.  I wait for something to indicate we’re starting, and a few moments later, realize, oh shoot, I’m probably supposed to be meditating already.

Then, from the back of the room, the main monk (I assume) rings a small, beautiful chime-y bell three times. There is another long pause, and then….BAM! A tremendous thwack of something hard striking something else hard.

I jump, nearly falling over.

No one else moves.

Shoot, was this explained in the overview? Did everyone know to expect it?  Or am I just crazy jumpy?

Just as I begin to calm down, BAM! He does it again.

I jump again.

I brace myself for the next one.  I wait.

And wait.

And wait.

And finally realize, oh shoot, that was the sign to start meditating. I start.

I am terrible at it.

Now, I’ve never been good at meditating, and I have some really classic stories from failed attempts in the past.  I’ll tell you sometime if you’re interested.  But this time was even harder.  First, I’m pretty sure the junior monk indicated that you’re supposed to keep your eyes only mostly closed, not all the way, and I’m finding this incredibly distracting.  I focus on a particular spot on the tatami mat in front of me, but then I just keep thinking about that spot, and I know that’s not what I should be doing, either.  [NOTE: That is accurate: Eyes are supposed to be only mostly closed, as closed eyes are thought to lead to drowsiness. But you are also not supposed to focus on any one thing – everything in this limited field of vision should be acknowledged and have its place, so one does not focus on any one particular thing. But I didn’t know that at the time.] Second, I have no idea what we are supposed to be focusing on – emptiness? Breathing? I’m pretty sure the monk must have coached everyone on this, but of course I didn’t understand. [Note: apparently, the purpose of zazen is to come to know one’s true self through meditation. I guess I should have focused on that?]

I close my eyes.  It’s a little easier. But then I feel bad because I’m pretty sure I’m not supposed to have them closed. I open them a little. I get distracted.

Requests for blessings
Ema boards with wishes written on them

The head monk is moving around. He’s holding that wooden board up to people’s spines. I straighten mine.  I want to have it perfect by the time he gets to me.  I am as straight as can be.  My head is perfectly aligned with my spine. He approaches me, places the board along my spine, and pulls me backward about five inches, slamming me into the board.  I was not even close to proper alignment.

I focus on maintaining that perfect alignment, and then remember I’m supposed to be meditating.  Back to my struggle to meditate.  I try all the tricks I tell my students: I focus on my breathing.  When I feel myself getting distracted, I acknowledge the thought that arises, and then try to dismiss it.  These thoughts won’t leave.  They said the actual meditation will only be fifteen minutes.  How long has it been? I try counting to ten.  I can’t get further than three before I have other thoughts. I curse my “monkey mind.”

The monks are coming around again, I can see out of the corner of my eye, but I don’t know why…oh, people are bowing to them. Are we done already? Then I hear a loud “THWACK! THWACK! THWACK!”

It is not the same sound of hard surface hitting hard surface as before, it’s the sound of a hard surface hitting something….fleshy, and covered in clothes.  The monk is coming around with the board and hitting people on the back, just like in the demo!  Just like in the demo, only much, much harder, it seems. I had completely misinterpreted that one. It wasn’t to make us aware of proper shoulder positions, it was to warn us they would be hitting us.

As the monk moves down the line, getting closer, I grow a little worried.  Is this going to hurt?  That is a big-arse board.  It sounds hard. I am actually nervous.

Here’s the thing about me: when I get nervous, I get giggly.  Really giggly.  He is now two people away from me.  And I hear the “thwack!” loud and clear – that is hard.  It is going to hurt. And I am going to bust out giggling.  I can feel the giggles growing as the woman next to me bows, folds her arms and bows even lower, and receives her blows.  As she bows the final time, I am barely containing giggles.  The monk steps in front of me.

I fold my hands and we bow to each other, and as I am bent low – I bow so low my head nearly touches the mat – I cannot get the smile off my face. Luckily, I manage to suppress it on the way up, I fold my arms together, bow again – and am hit, three times on my right side and then three times on my left side. I made it through without giggles. I fold my hands and we bow to each other again, and he moves on to the man next to me.

I am grinning now, I can’t contain it anymore. It did hurt.  My back stings slightly.  But it also kind of felt nice.  After all that sitting – uncomfortable sitting – those smacks feel like they kind of got my blood flowing better.  But they also sort of focused me. I give up fretting about what I’m supposed to be meditating on and just focus on breathing fully and naturally.  This actually IS fantastic! It’s so calming, and if I’m not perfect at it, that’s okay – it’s my first time doing zazen.  And I’m in a country where I don’t speak the language.  But I’m having a great time there.  I feel myself relax, and my inhalations get longer and deeper, and I feel how my body can now sit straight with less struggle, and my knees are not protesting my half lotus position anymore – my body has eased into this meditation thing. I sit there peacefully for sometime before the head monk rings those pleasant little chimes. I open my eyes slowly.

Temple flag and Shrine Torii gate
Flag from the Buddhist temple; Shinto shrine Torii gate on other side of lake

And then “BAM!”

He hits those rods again and yet again, I nearly fall over.

I have apparently not learned anything.

Yet I still come away from the experience thinking I had a great time! I can’t wait to try this again.

NOTE: I didn’t take pictures of the temple where I did the zazen (it somehow didn’t feel appropriate).  But I did walk back through the park and take pictures of our little Inokashira Park temple, which are the photos in this post.


4 thoughts on “D6: Shazam, zazen! My meditation misfortunes

  1. Loved this story on your meditating experience. I would be so intrigued to do that myself but def. nervous not knowing the language at all! How are you handling the language barrier? Is it frustrating you at all when you go off exploring on your own? Do you miss hearing tid bits of peoples passing conversations in a language you understand?

    1. Don is fluent in Japanese, so when I’m with him, everything’s great. On my own, the language barrier is tough, but I do a whole lot of charades (that’s always a sight to see), and I bring my phrasebook everywhere I go. (I learned hiragana and katakana characters over the summer, too, and that helps a little). Basically the thing that has helped the most when I’m out on my own is simply that everyone I’ve met or encountered here has been wonderfully helpful and willing to go far out of their way to work with my very floundering Japanese!
      I do miss understanding tidbits of conversation – the other day I overheard two Canadian women talking about how worried they were about fitting everything they’ve bought in Japan into their suitcases, and the conversation struck me as so peculiar – until I realized, it was just because I actually understood it! In a way, not understanding allows me to be in my own private world, even when walking through a street crowded with hundreds of other people. (That has its pluses and minuses, of course).

  2. I’m impressed you struck off on your own! I don’t know if I would have had the courage. Sounds like you did great. The monks probably weren’t helping that other chick because she was just hopeless. 🙂

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