Japanese-style Meditation Practice

Book cover

On one of my trips to Japan I interviewed an American teaching English in a private university. He showed me the little Buddhist shrine in his apartment, but he talked mostly about the meditation as he had practiced it in and around San Francisco. In Japan he has gone  to the headquarters of the Sotoshu Zen sect, to connect with like-minded people and does some meditation with people in his area.

Tracy’s story

My reason for coming to Japan was that I couldn’t grow professionally in the Bay Area.  You can’t get work in one institution full-time, which means you’re commuting between different schools, and that was a recipe for burnout.  I was very grateful to be able to come here. At that time my wife Umiko and I had started seeing each other, and she was going back to Japan, and there seemed to be a convergence happening in our lives, both of us moving in the same direction.

In the Bay Area there are so many traditions, so alive. In fact, Suzuki Rochi, who wrote Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, said, “I want to go to America because I like the attitude, I like the energy.” He was invited as the head of the Sotoshu Mission in San Francisco serving the Japanese-American community. After a couple of years, he was basically serving the role of your standard Buddhist priest, filling ceremonial functions. But more and more people were coming to the temple to sit zazen [Zen Buddhist meditation], and eventually the Japanese community said, “It looks as if they need you more than we do.” He said, “You’re right. This is where this practice is coming to life. It’s with these people because of their motivation and enthusiasm and willingness to try new things, and I like being around people like that, stumbling their way toward finding out what’s happening in the world.”

For me Buddhism is fresh. As it’s presented to us, it doesn’t have a rigid dogma that you have to accept before you can grow or be a part of the religion or the practice. It’s like religion without God. Westerners weren’t born into it, so it doesn’t carry all the baggage. The Buddha said, “Don’t believe anything I say. Just check it out for yourself.” It’s your own experience that verifies it. In the sutras there’s a lot about transcendence and cosmic psychedelia that’s very appealing, but what draws people is the suffering.

A lot of young people come to the Zen center because something in their hearts is calling them or because they find it philosophically appealing. There’s so much convergence with our understanding now of how the universe is constructed. There’s no separation between the observed and the observer and all. But certainly the people I’ve met in their thirties through their seventies all come to Buddhism because nothing else is working. I’ve been through it all, and I want to get to the root cause of suffering, which as I am finding out is also the cause of everyone else’s suffering.

Often there are elements of religion people liked as child: being in church, the smells, the bells, the chanting, the community. Then for whatever reason—getting fed up with the idea of original sin or the hypocrisy they saw around them—they grew out of it. But they still have a lot of affection for people coming together and as a group and expressing gratitude for things as they are.

I practiced meditation full-time for about six years, pretty intensely, and for eight years a little less so. I was actually at the monastery for two years and then working part-time and living in communities or in the city center and working in the communities, in the garden or the farm or in the kitchen.

The city center, the country center, the mountain center were all different. You could even say they were increasing in levels of intensity from the city to the country to the mountains. Some people would say that the mountains are the toughest because that’s where the practice is the most demanding and rigorous, getting up at 3:45 in the morning and having a couple of periods of zazen before breakfast. At the same time you’re doing stuff in the zendo [meditation hall]. It’s freezing cold outside although they’ve got heat in the center now, not like the good old days. Then more zazen all morning long, and then there’s a class and a few hours of work in the afternoon, and then you get to take a bath, and you have an hour and a half of free time. Then you’re back in the zendo and then there’s more of that and then you’re in bed by nine o’clock. You get up six and a half hours later. You’re physically exhausted, your body’s a wreak, you’re out of your element and you don’t have any of your comfort foods.

It’s often pretty grueling. Practice is great. Lunch is great. Whatever’s left over from lunch is all thrown together for the evening meal. Sometimes even the cold salad is thrown in with the sticky rice. It’s baked a couple of hours, and it comes out so that you have to scrape it off the spoon to your bowl. But then technically, there’s no meal at night. What you eat is like a warm stone in the stomach because it’s freezing cold in your cabin. The food keeps your energy up. Sometimes people would find the life very demanding, and certainly at the beginning it is.

There are seven periods of zazen. The meals and classes are in the zendo, and you sit in the same posture except that instead of facing the wall you’re facing outward. The meals are all ritualized, right up until the moment when you bow and get to start shoveling the food into your mouth. It’s all over quick. You agreed to be under their control, but very soon you’re going to be on the controlling side. That’s the beauty of the training: everybody slides through every position, even the abbots are cycled in and out. It’s a kindness machine.  You have to give up. If you fight it you’ll be really miserable. People’s hearts just open up.  They give up because they’re so exhausted. It’s classic brainwashing.

Why do it? Basically, the idea is that, if clinging to the ego is the essential cause of our suffering, if you remove all of your ordinary distractions you’re forced to face the operation of your own ego. You’ve made a commitment that for these next few months you’re really going to try. As Dogen said, “To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be realized by all things.” Then compassion and wisdom are born. So if you’re forced to sit there, and you’ve made this commitment to yourself to sit there, you can’t see anything else but your mind basically screaming to get the hell out. Why the hell am I doing this? You start to see how your mind works when it’s faced with what’s unpleasant.  At the beginning nobody likes to get up at four o’clock in the morning.

Actually, after a while many people really start to dig it. When you start sitting long enough there’s a shift of consciousness going on, and you’re experiencing various bliss states. That in itself is very appealing and very addictive.  But for most of us it passes after a few days and you’re back in your suffering again.

So why would somebody do that?  As I was saying before, people are very often at a point where they’ve tried everything, and they know deep-down they are hurting, and the only way they’re going to get to the root of that is by facing that suffering. Then they see it’s not the pain that’s so horrible, it’s trying to avoid the pain that’s so horrible. That’s what’s causing the suffering. How you put the blame on everyone else, not taking responsibility for your own actions, not seeing the consequences of your own actions, not being aware of the karma that’s being produced. Also, how you’re living out your habits and you’re living out your parents’ history.

In my case, I had a history of depression—still do, but it’s largely diminished now. Certainly for me there’s a biological component, but there’s also a part that came out of shutting down at an early age to avoid the pain of the disconnect I felt from my parents. When I was doing zazen I could go into foggy-grey zones for days. I’d break out of it now and then.

For a lot of people, the only outlet they have is food, and even that’s regulated. You can go crazy over food because there’s nothing else to get worked up about. You could gripe about the schedule, but you agreed to that. So you complain that you’re not getting enough food or it’s not the right balance. Every fifth day you get sort of a day off.  You can have home-baked cookies if you want. People go berserk, and there’s a gorge fest to compensate for all the deprivation of the previous four days. I saw huge amounts of anger arising within me. We would get this great breakfast of fresh-roasted cashews and buttermilk and bananas. We could actually put the cashews and buttermilk and bananas in the bowl and mix them, which is verboten unless the cook invites you to do that. Sometimes the head cook would forget to invite people to mix. For me it was essential to have it all together. The only thing in your universe that you can control is adding the cashews in order to have a good taste for ten minutes. All the rest of the day you’re doing what somebody else is telling you to do. So I’d be raging inside that I couldn’t mix the food together, and I’d have a resentment, and I’d be forced to deceive everyone by putting the cashews in my mouth and then putting the bananas and buttermilk in my mouth so I could chew them together.

Also, when the buttermilk and bananas was being served and the pot was coming around the zendo, I could tell from the sound of the metal ladle scraping the bottom that it was running out. So I’d be thinking, “Those idiots in the kitchen, can’t they plan anything correctly? Don’t they know that we’re all in here suffering and this is our only relief?” I’d have massive amounts of rage. Because of my history of repressing strong emotion, which gives rise to the depression, my energy would go into holding those emotions in.  But then I’d practice breathing in every bit of pain that’s in my knees during the rest of the day, breathing in and out that anger. It produced these breakthroughs, these flowerings. Sometimes I’d go into bliss states for days at a time, what they call “the reward body.” It’s kind of innocent, but it’s what happens when you get with the way things are.

You’re angry—don’t—it’s not your parents. Okay, it is your parents, but breathe that.  It’s not the cook. Okay, well, it is the cook.  Breathe that.  The bottom line is your reaction: okay, this is mine. People open up in ways that are incredible.

The abbot used to say, “You know, you guys are only here for a short time or maybe only a few years. When you leave, of course you’re sad. You know you won’t be able to sustain this sensitivity, this openness. It’s a physical impossibility. The heart opens, the heart closes. This is the way it is. In the city it’s going to be really loud, and your heart’s going to close down. I’ve been doing this for thirty years. You have been changed by this experience. You don’t know it necessarily, but deep down, at the cellular level maybe, you’ll remember. Whether you know it or not, our nature is Buddha-nature. You’re planting seeds in others even though you don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t even begin to fathom what you’re doing. It’s incomprehensible.”

That was just one center. The vast majority of people who consider themselves a part of the sangha [community] don’t live there. They have busy lives. They’ve got families and careers.  Or they’re really messed up, with addictions and other problems, but they know this is speaking truth to them, and they want it.

When I was in Tassajara in the mountains, guests would come, people who’d volunteered in the work period, and referring to all fifty of us students who lived there year-round, they’d say, “I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you’re here doing this practice.” Now that I’m out I understand. When people do this practice, it’s a touchstone. It’s a reminder. It’s hope. It’s also that people are healing. I’ve forgotten all the words that used to come easily when talking about these kinds of things. The monks are doing healing work for the planet and for everyone else. They’re the shamans, the medicine men and women whose cultivation of selflessness is having an effect on everything else, helping everything else be a little less attached and stressed out about what’s mine and what’s yours. So even for the people who have no idea what’s going on, who haven’t thought about things other than mowing the lawn or trying to pay bills, I think they’re being helped too. The people who are aware that this is what’s going on and who aren’t actively taking part, like me now, would volunteer during the work periods or come as guests during the guest season. They’d say, “Yes, you’re actually helping me because I know this to be true, what you’re doing. It reminds me of how I want to be in my life—but I’m in the city.”

Dogen, the founder of the Sotoshu Mission, used to say, “In the beginning, mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers. You go to the mountains, and you practice, and then mountains are not mountains and rivers are not rivers. You come down from the mountains after your years of practice and return to the city, and then mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers again.”

What he meant was every day in conventional reality we say that this is a table and that’s a plant. Then we practice in the mountains or in our rooms, and we get a sense or maybe even a taste of the rise and fall of everything, all the time and at the same time. That everything is interdependent and nothing is happening without everything else taking part in bringing that event to life. So in that ultimate sense there is no ego, there is no self, there isn’t even clinging. Everything’s flowing. That mountain’s a part of that cloud, and this feeling of anger toward whatever is a part of an event in my life twenty years ago, and then a part of a series of events in my parents’ lives thirty years before that. You can’t point to any one thing as saying this is that without getting an incomplete picture.

Most of us can’t live in ultimate reality all the time with it’s constant sense of awareness. In a conventional world, children have to learn when they put a finger on a hot stove it’s going to burn. There are immediate consequences from their actions and behavior.

The universe doesn’t give rise to my sticking my finger in the flame. I have to take responsibility and ownership for my own feelings. Some people would say that “mountains are mountains and rivers are rivers” is an illusion, it’s separating reality into constituents that ultimately don’t exist as separate constituents. There’s an interdependence of everything and a selflessness of everything. But you have to be able to connect that with the fact that we all live in an everyday world where there are very direct consequences for our behavior.

Hopefully, when we come down from the mountains we bring that sense of interdependence with us to our relationships, to everything. They say that city practice is the toughest practice. That’s where the world is. You see people being thoughtless and cruel and everybody’s wrecking the world and hurting each other. It’s tough. But if you’re privileged enough or lucky enough to be able to do get away to practice, they say you’ve taken on a responsibility. Not in the missionary sense or evangelical sense, but just by living in a way that’s consistent with and comes from the experience of interdependence.  So that others can benefit.  That’s the bodhisattva. That’s the Lotus Sutra.