There are rules for every moment that we are in the temple; itâ€™s highly precise.
We’ve had many changes in the past week. After the long weekend, we began Zen with a Japanese Zen master, Ekai Korematsu Osho. No one can pronounce his name, so we call him ‘sensei.’ Sensai actually began his formal Zen training at San Francisco Zen Center, and then returned to Kyoto, Japan for his monastic training. He founded Oakland Zen Center later on and now runs a center in Australia, where he currently lives. He brought five of his students and his two sons with him when he arrived on Sunday.
Zen is no joke. We spent the entire hour and a half of the first night of meditation learning all the rules in the Zendo (the temple, according to Zen). The cushions are set up in a way that allows us to all face each other, whereas in Theravada we sat in rows facing U Hla Myint (he’s leaving for Burma today!). Facing the entrance and in the middle of the room is a table with a small Japanese statue of the Buddha with a candle and two sticks of incense.
There are rules for every moment that we are in the temple; it’s highly precise. First, we walk in and each person must bow to the table with the incense. Our hands must be in prayer position, with our forearms parallel to the ground. When we walk to our assigned seat, we make a fist on our chest with our left hand and cover it with our right – and again, our forearms must be parallel to the ground. When we get to our seat, we have to fluff our cushion and bow to the cushion. Then we must turn clockwise – always – and bow facing away from the cushion before sitting down. We have sequence of backstretches that we complete before we sit with a mudra – our hands are cupped together, and our thumbs touch, making an oval near the navel. Then we sit for 20 minutes. When that’s over, we bow a million times again and do some walking then sit for another 20 minutes. Then we do some prostrations toward the Buddha and toward each other.
My favorite part is hearing all the different sounds – in the morning, 10 minutes before we start, the timekeeper of the Zendo hits a wooden block that I can hear from my room. In the Zendo, there are two bells – one deeper bell that we used for Theravada and a standing bell, which has a handle. The sounds and the timing of the sounds are super precise.
We even got Zen practice robes that we wear every morning that have their own set of rules. Wearing it makes me feel like a cartoon character. We had another hour-long orientation to learn how to wear them and fold them and tuck them when we’re sitting. Sensei made a comment that he asked the program director to make the robes in a different color (not black) because it’s too hot, but our director replied that he wanted us to have the traditional experience. Sensei turns off the fans in the temple. Even though it has been cooler lately, it’s still tough to sit through meditation when I’m wearing two layers of clothes and a black robe with excess fabric.
In the afternoon, we walk or take a rickshaw to the Japanese temple on the other side of town for the practice. It’s a huge change in the routine – it requires us to leave the Vihar half an hour early to get there on time. And earlier is better in Zen, so I try to leave about 40 minutes early. The temple is beautiful; they burn a really amazing incense and there are murals all over the walls. It is open to the public, so we often have other non-program folks who join us for the practice. They’re usually pretty bewildered because everything is so choreographed. Because the space is open to the public, many visitors come in and out and take pictures of us while we sit. Our practice in the afternoon is similar than in the morning, but believe it or not, there’s another set of rules for the practice in the Japanese temple. It includes walking around the temple three times and chanting the heart sutra. And lots of different sounds. There’s nothing more interesting to Indian visitors than 50 Westerners walking around a Japanese temple in India.
The Sensei has a wooden stick. When we are doing the sitting practice, we can put our palms together near our chest to request him to check our posture. He taps you on the shoulder then props the stick up against your back to make sure you are touching the stick at three points: your head, shoulders and lower back. Posture is so important in Zen (my posture is already getting better from five days of practice). If we tilt our head to the left when he taps on the shoulder Sensei interprets that as a request to be hit by the stick. He usually repositions you and then whacks you above the right shoulder blade. It is frightening when it happens. It’s startling. I’m usually shaken for some time, especially when it happens near me. Apparently, it stings but it makes you sit up straighter and disciplines the mind.
The idea is that all of this is the practice – not just the sitting and walking. Everything is all about neatness and being precise about every single action. Even the way that we arrange our shoes when we enter the Zendo (heels facing the door) is part of the practice, not the preparation for practice. It’s a performance. All of it.
I’m finding that I’m less resistant to the practice this time around. I’ve come into it with an open mind and don’t have any urge to reject any of the practices, whereas in Theravada, I chose not to bow to the Buddha, or chose not to recite some of the chants. While Zen seems rigid, the paradox is that it’s actually quite freeing. The Sensei says “it’s simple, just follow my directions.” There is nothing more. We pay attention to what we’re doing and if we’re doing the practice right, there is no room for the mind to wander. There’s no analyzing or paying attention to thoughts or sensations, even. We just sit. During the second sit of a practice, after walking, we face the walls instead of each other. When someone asked how to turn around while sitting down, he replied, “just make it pretty.” And then we laughed his ominous enlightened-person laugh that all monks or spiritually advance people have. It’s a deep and thick, but at the same time he looks like an animated seven-year-old; his head bobs up and down and side to side at the same time.
I was compelled this week to integrate Zen into my daily life already – which is telling of how much I am open to this practice as opposed to Vipassana. After the first night of practice, I spent the rest of my evening sanitizing the bathroom – scrubbing the toilet and the mold off of the shower walls and floor and swept the entire room. Then I organized my desk and refolded all of my clothes (I only have 7 outfits) and remade my bed. I felt a little like my mother except that I did everything about half the speed as she would have done. Sensei says that if the external is in order, the mind will be in order. Maybe momma would like Zen.