Temple Transcendence: Zen Meditation in Kyoto

“Meditation is the soul’s perspective glass.”  ~ Owen Feltham

“All of man’s difficulties are caused by his inability to sit, quietly, in a room by himself.”  ~ Blaise Pascal


“The idea of ‘empty mind’ is impossible,” our pragmatic Zen Buddhist Meditation Master started.  He continued, “More appropriately, you should strive for a state of ‘NO MIND’.  Accept what is and what cannot be changed; do not attempt to ignore that which cannot be ignored.”  He continued, this time more profoundly, “Concentrate on now, not the future or the past.  TODAY IS THE YOUNGEST YOU’LL EVER BE.  Things done today impact EVERYTHING downstream.  It is not about karma; rather, it is about refraining from placing judgment or valuation of good versus bad.  There are only actions and impacts….”

Not how to meditate.

Not how to meditate.

Thus, our dabble with authentic Zen Meditation (“zazen” 坐禅, literally “seated meditation”), started, and boy was it a pleasant surprise.  Jody and I decided to stay in the Buddhist temple Shunkoin during our recent trip to Kyoto, Japan, which provided a class and orientation on Zen mediation (read about our stay here:  Serene Sanctuary).  I can tell you that this experience…wait for it…enlightened us!

Geeks need love - and meditation - too.

Geeks need love – and meditation – too.

“Who can empty their mind?  It is an impossible task!  Random thoughts, noises in the environment, emotions – all these things are impossible to block,” Rev Takafumi continued.  “Quite the contrary; let these thoughts and sensations flow through your mind which is always full.  But, strive to separate judgment, categorization and valuation to such thoughts and sensations.  Hence, the idea of ‘no mind’,” he continued.


Reverend Takafumi Kawakami leads the meditation services at the temple.  He serves as the Temple’s Vice Abbot, and is a Kyoto native whose family has a long history at Shunkoin.  The wonderful thing about relating with and to Rev Kawakami is that he was educated in the United States, where he worked and obtained dual degrees in religious studies and psychology.  So, not only is his English almost fluent, he is well versed on Western lifestyles, cultural norms, and societal expectations.

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

Reverend Takafumi Kawakami

“How can you meditate in pain?  That is totally not the point!”  Our meditation master continued, “It’s hard for almost everyone to hold the full lotus position (Kekkafuza), and still hard for most in the half-lotus position (Hankafuza).”  The lotus position, in which you usually find statues of Buddha posed in, is only for the very flexible.  The half-lotus position was recommended by our Master, but then only if there was no pain or discomfort experienced.  He provided mats (zabuton), cushions (zafu), and even chairs for those with bad knees.

The Temple's Meditation Hall

The Temple’s Meditation Hall

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, Shunko-in Temple, zen meditation whipped green tea and sweetsThe Temple provides a Zen meditation class and Temple tour daily, which combined, take about 90 minutes.  There is a quick reception where introductions are made, and then everyone proceeds to the meditation room in the back of the temple complex.  Keep in mind that this is an authentic, old and historic temple, and as such it lacks insulation.  The meditation room was heated, but a bit drafty.  The walks through the temple passages to get to the meditation room and during the follow-on tour are not!  Luckily for us, hot maccha (also spelled matcha) green tea and Japanese sweets were served after the tour.

The Master's Station

The Master’s Station

zentaka“The point is to take a comfortable position and remain still.  Whether you need a cushion, or to even sit in a chair is up to you.  One can meditate anywhere in any position.  The positioning of your body is just not that important,” the Reverend surprisingly stated.  “Don’t worry so much about the formalities.  People in the West get so caught up in the orthodoxy of meditation that they forget to meditate.”  While the full lotus position places the meditator in a balanced and symmetrical posture closest to the ground, an important aspect of the Japanese floor-based culture, the half-lotus position provides most of the same results.


We only had 4 in our class....

We only had 4 in our class….

One of the most interesting aspects of our introduction to Zen meditation in such an authentic setting was the discussions about not just the basics of meditation, but of how to incorporate Zen philosophy into your daily life.  “Incense does not cleanse the air!  It’s smoke after all,” the Reverend startlingly exclaimed.  “We use incense to time the segments of meditation….  The most important thing is take a few moments every day to meditate; only then will the benefits be realized over time.”

Meditation mats and cushions.

Meditation mats and cushions.

zenkitties-speedbump-268x300One of the primary tenants of Zen is meditation.  Through remaining motionless and focusing on breathing, one is able to bring oneself into the now moment and detach from previous knowledge and preconception.  The goal is to eventually reach a state of transcendence and to realize the fundamental non-permanence of being.  This means interacting with the world without consciousness of self, categorization, or discrimination.

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don't need a regulator....

I meditate on my breathing so well that I don’t need a regulator….

I was immediately struck by the types of meditation that I do in my own life, although I have never really put them in a Zen Buddhist meditative context.  For example, scuba diving, especially when I have dived solo, approaches such a state of transcendence.  Being in the alien environment underwater, focusing intently on slow controlled breathing with full and deep inhales and exhales, while moving through the water as effortlessly as possible where the sounds of life above on terrestrial earth are absent, allows me to clear my mind of almost all conflict and strife.  Life itself is simply set in a different context underwater where humans really are uninvited.

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Hard to focus on thought when riding through such wonderful scenery!

Or, when traveling on very long motorcycle trips.  When you ride ~500 miles in a day on a bike, you have more time with your thoughts than you can simply imagine.  No radio, no one to talk to, just the drone of the bike drummed out by earplugs, and the passing miles and the voices in your head.  And after a certain point, I do find that I achieve a state of “no mind” where the voices stop, and this is indeed the very reason why bikers talk about it taking 100 miles for them to “clear their heads.”  It is not comfortable for some people to be so alone with themselves, and cross-country motorcycle trips are not for everyone.  But for those of us that know the magic healing powers of the road and two wheels, it is again due to a related meditative state much like in Zen Buddhism.

It's amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

It’s amazing how relaxed you can get during the climb to altitude.

And perhaps the best example I have is in skydiving, which on the surface is completely counter-intuitive.  For such an action-packed, adrenaline-pumping sport where one literally cheats death every time, you would think there is NO time for meditation.  However, we – my fellow skydivers and I – often find ourselves keeping silently to ourselves on the twenty-minute ride up to altitude.  It’s hard to talk in the plane due to helmets and ambient noise, so most often we sit comfortably with our eyes closed, letting the white noise of the cool rushing wind and drone of the turboprop engine  flow through our minds.  Personally, I find those moments some of the most serene and peaceful, perhaps exactly because of the chaos that ensues shortly afterwards.

meditation quote

What the Rev Takafumi Kawakami confirmed for me is the central importance of meditation itself, not the formality or framework in which meditation takes place.  Wherever and however you find your way to meditate is not essential; what is important is to just do it, and do it as often as possible.  Small actions today can have dramatic impacts tomorrow.  Meditation is one effective way to exploit acts today so that a better tomorrow can be realized.


How do YOU meditate in your daily life?

Zen Rock Gardens: You just don’t get it, do ya?

蓼食う虫も好き好き, Tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki, literally, there are even bugs that eat knotweed, or, there’s no accounting for taste; to each his own.

“Zen…does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes.  Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”  ~ Alan Watts, The Way of Zen

Ryoanji Temple's World-Infamous Rock Garden

Ryoanji Temple’s World-Infamous Rock Garden

The most famous Zen garden in Japan is found in Kyoto at the 15th-century Ryoanji Temple (龍安寺, Ryōanji), the Temple of the Peaceful Dragon, where for the first time the Zen garden became purely abstract.  For some reason, unbeknownst to the writer after recently visiting the temple, Ryoan-ji remains THE über example of Zen gardens— a powerful, yet wholly abstract Zen Buddhist landscape designed to invoke deep meditation.  Hey, did I mention yet just how abstract the rock “garden” actually is?  It encompasses a rectangle of 340 square meters (about the size of tennis court), and within it are (can I insert “randomly here) placed fifteen stones of different sizes, composed in five (quite possibly “random”) groups; one group of five, two groups of three, and two groups of two.  The only vegetation in the garden is some moss around the stones, and the stone groupings are surrounded by white gravel, which is carefully raked each day by the resident monks of the Temple.

Diagram-of-Ryoanji2rockgarden02Ryōan-ji’s rock garden resists easy interpretation, or quite possibly any interpretation.  And in a simple non-abstract phrase, no, I just don’t get it.  Theories differ and are many, and include simple islands in a stream (oaky, I can buy this one), to river-crossing mother and baby tigers (Uhm, sure, I see’em, right there!  Nope, that’s just a rock….), to the peaks of mountains rising above the clouds (plausible), to theories about secrets of geometry or of the rules of equilibrium of odd numbers (which speaks kindly to the math-lete residing within me).  Then there is some very odd and totally abstract (there’s that word again) analyses on-line, with about the only missing explanation being that of “Ancient Aliens” UFO-origin.  However, I prefer the explanation of the garden provided by the historian Gunter Nitschke: “The garden at Ryōan-ji does not symbolize anything, or more precisely, to avoid any misunderstanding, the garden of Ryōan-ji does not symbolize, nor does it have the value of reproducing a natural beauty that one can find in the real or mythical world.  I consider it to be an abstract composition of ‘natural’ objects in space, a composition whose function is to incite meditation.”  That seems just about right.  I certainly just can’t seem to find, no matter how hard I try, a mother tiger helping her babies to cross a stream….

I can assure you what my cat sees....

I can assure you what my cat sees….

Modern scientific analysis shows there's a tree in the garden after all.   Riiiiigggghhhhttttt....

Modern scientific analysis shows there’s a tree in the garden after all. Riiiiigggghhhhttttt….

zen-catsA young monk raking the famous Japanese rock garden of Ryoanji TempleThe Japanese rock garden (枯山水 karesansui, “dry-water landscape”), often called a Zen garden, creates a miniature stylized landscape through carefully composed arrangements of rocks, moss, pruned trees and bushes, and raked gravel or sand.  They originated in medieval Japan and are renowned for their simplicity and serenity.  Zen gardens are usually small, surrounded by a wall, and, in contrast to gardens of the West which are designed to be viewed from within, Zen rock gardens are meant to be seen from outside, usually seated, and best from a single viewpoint, most commonly located on the veranda of the hojo, the abbot’s temple residence.  Zen gardens imitate the intimate essence of nature, not its actual appearance, and serve as an aid to meditation.  White sand and gravel are prominent features of these gardens.  In Shinto, they symbolize purity, while in Zen (Buddhist) gardens they represent water or emptiness and distance.  The very act of raking the gravel into intricate patterns assists Zen priests in their concentration.  Achieving perfection of lines in the present is not easy and requires strict focus; and even if achieved, the garden does not remain static, but requires careful and constant attention, just as many of the more important aspects of our lives do.  Stone arrangements and other miniature elements (shaped shrubs) are used to represent mountains and natural water elements and scenes, islands, rivers and waterfalls.  In some gardens moss is used as a ground cover to create “land” covered by forest.

Not a Zen rock garden

Not a Zen rock garden

The gardens of Ginkaku-ji, Kyoto’s famed “Silver Pavilion,” include a traditional Zen “pond” garden (made of raked gravel, mind you), but includes a perfectly shaped mountain of white gravel, resembling Mount Fuji.  The scene is referred to as ginshanada, literally, “sand of silver and open sea”.

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

Fuji and the sea of gravel at the Silver Pavilion

ZenCrosswordzen-bdayLike the opening quote of this blog, I believe that we, who habitually struggle with the human condition with which we find ourselves confronted, much too often look for “more.”  More meaning, more connection, more complex relationships that maybe just maybe begin to answer the queries that burn within us all.  But, like a Zen Buddha Abbot told us, Zen focuses on “no mind” and not what we in the West assume as “empty mind;” minds cannot be emptied.  However, Zen strives for a mind-state where one accepts cerebral notions, thoughts and imagery, except without judgment, value, or emotion, and devoid of stress or reaction.  In this way, one can develop the eyes necessary to see and the ears necessary to hear truth, which helps us to understand and accept answers of life that could otherwise make us feel very uncomfortable.  In the end, I believe the rock gardens – including that at Ryōan-ji – are simply a physical reflection of the same:  an empty plot, devoid of those things normally associated with western gardens designed to excite our senses, an abstract meaningless void which assists its viewers, in a sense, to loose their minds…to better see and understand the miracles of life, shared by all.

Kyoto Japan Winter 2014, tranquil bamboo water supply

Ryōan-ji’s tsukubai (蹲踞), the basin provided for ritual washing of the hands and mouth