Saturday, 16 February 2013

Drifting into Zen Meditation in Kyoto

After the first hectic weeks of the new year it was great to just spend a day wandering around the nearby city of Kyoto. Here Jules had discovered what she considered to be a sure fire way in which we could both (particularly me) spend some time in a more relaxed state. No … it wasn’t visiting one of the many local bars, although that would be nice too, but rather one of the local temples where we would be introduced to the traditional practice of Zen Meditation!

To be honest, I had always considered myself to be somewhat of a lost cause when it comes to any form of meditation. There were always far too many arbitrary thoughts rushing through my head, while it has to be said that it takes all of my patience to sit still quietly and do nothing for any length of time. However, I was more than prepared to give it a try once again, if only for the experience of visiting one of the many beautiful Buddhist temples in Kyoto.

Myoshinji is a large temple complex in northwest Kyoto and consists of around 50 traditional buildings that date back to the early 1300’s. At its peak the area included around 200 structures and while it might have slightly diminished in scale over the years, it still remains a major centre for Zen Buddhism in Japan. So if we were at all serious about learning the art of meditation, this would be literally the font of all knowledge on such matters. Shunkō-in temple is in fact the largest of the Rinzai Zen Buddhism schools and this magnificent sixteenth century temple would be the ideal setting to experience what Zen meditation had to offer.

Upon entering the temple, we were warmly welcomed by Rev.Taka, one of the senior priests who sat us down on pillows in a long and thankfully warm tatami room. It was after all the middle of winter, a factor that might have limited our class to a small group of seven. While we all sat in the cross-legged position (or lotus position for the more flexible), he began to enlighten us about the basic philosophies and elements of Zen meditation. He spoke about the essential need to live for the moment and to perceive that moment exactly as it is, rather than through the filter of our ideas and opinions … easier said than done I thought, but I guess that this after all is the ideal situation. He continued to calmly reassure us that if we were able to experience everything from moment to moment, then our outlook would become clear and enlightened. By adopting meditation and allowing us the time to simply sit in total silence, devoid of sensory distractions, it would act as ‘a daily vitamin pill toward spiritual peace’. Of course he provided much more detail than that and as we sat in the tranquil setting of the temple with bright sunlight streaming in through the foliage of a beautifully manicured Japanese garden, it all sounded very clear and logical.

We would begin our session by meditating for approximately fifteen minutes. I say ‘approximately’, as the time is traditionally determined by the burning time of a stick of Japanese incense. Jules and I had often wondered why the incense we had bought here seemed to burn down so quickly and apparently each stick is the ideal amount of time for meditation. Although in referring to this, Rev.Taka joked that these days you can actually download an ‘App’ for your iphone that performs the same task … say it isn’t so! On a more philosophical note, he went on to dispell the popular myth that meditation involved totally clearing your mind of all thought … this was quite a relief for me! I’m sure that this difficult and often impossible concept had turned many people away from the practice of meditation over the years. He went on to suggest that thoughts would indeed drift in and out of our minds and that this was quite natural and to be expected.

Following the ‘dong’ of a bell and with the ‘clack’ of two sticks of wood being slapped together, we closed our eyes and began our meditation. The room was now silent apart from the flickering of the gas heater and the occasional call of a bird outside. The sheer size of the temple complex prevented even the slightest traffic noise from drifting in. There we were, sitting silently in a room, just as others had done over the centuries, simply experiencing the moment. As anticipated, thoughts began to drift in and out and we began to notice our feet slowly turning numb and an increasing strain on our backs. However, the time passed quite quickly and with the sound of the ‘dong’ and ‘clack’ again, we were summoned to open our eyes and have a stretch. We all seemed a little dozy, as if we had returned from a far away journey and in a way we probably had. After a little more discussion, it was time to meditate once again … it was all very relaxing.

After it was all over, Rev. Taka proudly showed us around his temple, which is surrounded by what was called the ‘Garden of Boulders’, complete with a neatly raked sea of pebbles. This was accessed through a series of sliding doors that were also close to the more decorative gold panels inside which were painted by master artist Eigaku Kanō. As we sat down to drink warm green tea in a sunlit room that faced a lovely internal courtyard, we reflected upon the serenity of Zen Buddhism. The seemingly humble life of a Buddhist priest appeared to have some merit, as did the power of meditation. While I still don’t know whether we are total converts yet, there is certainly something to be said for taking a little time out to just sit, drift and live in the moment.

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