Stop

I had a rough time in Japan, but there is one thing that I do miss. Awareness.

We live in a culture of rush. It’s glorified, especially here in New England. Trying to make plans with someone inevitably becomes an argument about whose schedule is busier because for some reason, being busy equates to being accomplished..

Kyoto was not a particularly happy place for me. We had curfews and restrictions, lots of restrictions, especially at the monastery. A lot of that had to do with trying to diminish our thinking, decreasing our choices, forcing us to do rather than spending every moment anticipating the future. It was hard, but it worked.

But my favorite part of Kyoto? Every night at 8:00, I set out on my nightly walk. I finished all my work in anticipation of my nightly walk. Then I would set out, headphones in. 20 minutes to the river. Just me and myself. Once I got there, a thirty minute walking meditation. And finally, I would pick my favorite rock, sit, and just watch the Kamo River in all its glory. The lights, the city, the water. Then I would stroll home just in time for 10:00 curfew.

I miss it. And its not like I couldn’t do it here. But, I keep telling myself that there isn’t any time to stop. That I have to keep going even though I know its not really true.

Taking time for yourself isn’t a waste of time. In fact, its probably the most productive use of your time. Those are the moments when you are literally living. You don’t even have to be straight up meditating. Just being aware of where you are, not just physically, but in life. Being aware of the people around you, people with just as many feelings and emotions and experiences as you. There’s this unspoken belief that we don’t want to waste our life and in order to accomplish that, we have to do as much as possible in as little time as possible. We have to avoid failure. I am just as guilty in going along with these sentiments, but lately, I’m trying just a little bit harder not to. I personally believe that we are just passing through. Its okay to take life little less seriously.

Look up.

The river from Gojo Dori

The river from Gojo Dori


The river at night

The river at night

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Want

I’ve been thinking about desire a lot lately. Mostly because I have a whole freaking lot of it. I want my skin to get better. I want my own room. I want a real bed. I want to go home. I want to be happy. And these are only the big ones. Other moments are filled with other miniscule desires and cravings that for some reason my mind believes will make me satisfied, happy. I want chocolate. I want the bell to ring (during zazen). I want to not have to write this paper.

The problem is that I can want as many things as I want but (1) that doesn’t mean I’ll get them, and (2) if I do get them, I still won’t be happy. It’s similar to meditating for the purpose of achieving enlightenment. Here is an anecdote that I read last night in preparation for one of the papers that I didn’t want to write. It comes from the traditional biography of Chan Master Nanyue Huirang:

During the Kaiyuanera [713-742] there was a monk named Daoyi (that is, the great teacher Mazu) who resided at the Chuanfa Cloister and spent every day sitting in dhyāna (C.zuochan, J.zazen 坐禪). The master [Huairang] knew that he was a vessel of the dharma, so he went to him and asked,“What do you intend to accomplish by sitting in dhyāna?” Daoyi replied,“I intend to make myself into a buddha.” The master picked up a tile and rubbed it on a stone in front of the hermitage. Daoyi inquired,“Master, what are you doing?” The master said,“I am polishing it to make a mirror.” Daoyi said, “How could you sitting in dhyāna ever result in becoming a buddha?” Daoyi asked, “How is it done, then?” The master said, “It is like a man driving a cart that does not move: should he strike the cart to get it to go, or should he strike the ox?” Daoyi had no response. (Foulk 25)*

In this case, “striking the ox” is to sit with the understanding that there is no such thing as awakening rather than to sit with the desire of gaining awakening. Now this isn’t a perfect analogy and I don’t claim to be an enlightened philosopher, but I have recently been coming to the realization that achieving my desires will not produce happiness… so why not let go of desire? To be quite honest, its something that has kept me from living in the present because of all the potential I invest in the future. I don’t mean letting go of dreams and ambitions, because goals are something that keep us going and give our lives purpose. I mean letting go of those silly little superficial wants that we have no control over.

By no means is this an easy task. I was actually thinking about my experience at Toshoji and one of the things that made it so difficult was the fact that the entire time we had no control. It was very much about doing things that you didn’t want to do at times that you didn’t want to do them. But in a way, it made things easier because it became so clear to me that I had no control and I had to just let things be.

Anyways, this morning at zazen, I sat and meditated. I didn’t sit with the hope that the bell would ring soon and I didn’t sit thinking about what I wanted for breakfast. Sure there were moments when my mind would begin to wander here and there, but this morning I sat with the focus of being in the moment. It was probably one of the best zazens I’ve had on this trip besides my time at Toshoji. I think from now on, I’m going to focus on letting go of the things I can’t control, accepting that I can’t control them, and instead choosing to focus on the moment.

*Foulk, T. Griffith. Standard Observances of the Soto Zen School. Tokyo: Sotoshu Shumucho, 2010.

Searching for Happy

On Monday, we arrived back in Kyoto after a six day monastic retreat at the Toshoji Soto Zen Monastery in Okayama. It was an incredible experience but also one of the most challenging weeks I have ever had. Here are some tidbits from my experience.

On our first full day at the monastery, I was sitting in our first zazen of the day (at 4:30 in the morning). It had been a bit of a rough night and my anxiety levels were fairly high. Suddenly, I felt this cramp in my side and here are the thoughts that took place probably within the span of three minutes: My side really hurts. I must have appendicitis. We’re going to be in zazen for the next hour and a half. I’m in a monastery on a mountain in the middle of nowhere. I’m probably going to die before this is over. (In case you haven’t picked up on it, I’m a very paranoid person)

Anyway, I realized that what I really wanted at that very moment was to be back at home in my room snuggled up by myself. I wanted to be at home with my parents cooking downstairs, so I could hear the sizzle of the stove and smell the food and hear the chatter of my mom trying to talk over the commotion in kitchen.

So there you have it. My apparent dying wish.

After a while I actually managed to calm down and although I didn’t exactly meditate for that zazen period, I did a lot of thinking and it came to me that this was a really surprising desire. I’ve spent a long time trying to get as far away from my family as possible. There was a point in my life when I had started to associate being at home with stress, tears, and anxiety. But it’s also the place that has always been there for me to come back to no matter what and that’s something that I hadn’t fully realized.

A lot of my blog posts have revolved around my search for happiness, something that I’ve always found to be quite elusive. And over the past year, I’ve searched high and low for this, but I haven’t quite found it. And I’m starting to think that maybe I didn’t have to look so hard.

And that’s a thought that kept coming back to me over and over this past week.

Let me tell you something about eating in a zen monastery. It is probably most stressful meal you will ever have in your entire life. Oryoki is no joke. Here is a website with some instructions, but because it will probably take an hour to read all of them, here’s a summary. You are given a set of four bowls and a bunch of cloths and utensils. The meal begins with chanting, laying out your set in a very specific order, more chanting, a very complicated serving process, and more chanting. Then you are given what I’m guessing is about eight minutes to eat before everyone else is done and you have thirty people very intimidating faces and an abbott staring you down (I’m fairly certain monks inhale their food). Seconds are served and then eating resumes for about another five minutes. Depending on the meal your bowls are cleaned a slightly different way, but typically, tea is served in your bowls and you drink it to wash down the food. Then the boiling water is poured and you use a utensil called a setsu to wash down the rest of the bowls. You drink everything that is in your bowls and then put your set away in yet another complicated ritual.

I bring this up mostly because the eating process caused me a lot of grief at the monaster,y and I need to complain about it (If you are a slow eater you basically end up starving). But the first night we returned to Kyoto, we ended up going to a restaurant that we had previously frequented quite regularly. This time though, we ended up sitting there for an hour and a half, taking our time and savoring every bite. I don’t think I’ve ever had such a wonderful meal.

If I wanted to wrap this post up with a bow, I could conclude that while at the monastery, I also reached enlightenment. But to be quite honest, I spent half of our zazens not meditating. The experience did mean something though. Being out of your comfort zone isn’t just to help you grow. It’s also to help you gain perspective. Even helping you see what is literally in front of you. Maybe my happy is sitting right in front me, but I just can’t see it.

Being so far from home, especially right now, is really hard for a whole host of reasons. Over the past few weeks I’ve had some really ugly thoughts bubble up that I haven’t even seen since high school. But now I think I’m on the path to getting grounded again. I’ve caught a glimpse of the happy and even just knowing its out there is good enough for me.

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My throne of enlightenment

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So ready for oryoki dinner