ID #1054

Living the Zen Life

Photos courtesy of Wes Thorpe

Here at the Tokyo Classifieds blog, we try to make your life easier with tips and tricks. Most of it revolves around material concerns (cheap grocery stores, mailing your stuff, etc.), but today, we go deeper. The man taking us there is Wes Thorpe, a practitioner of Zen meditation and the jikijitsu at Tokuun-in in Ueno.

What is Zen meditation? How does it differ from other forms of meditation?

Most forms of meditation choose some sort of object for the mind – something specific to concentrate on. This can me a sound, like “Om,” something visual, like the flame of a candle, or a sensation, like the passage of air through one’s nose. Some other types of meditation involve contemplation of a process (e.g. the decay of the body) or involve trying to invoke certain positive feelings, like compassion or forgiveness.

In Zen we start with counting the breaths or following the breath as an introductory practice to build concentration. At Tokuun-in, we then move on to a practice called shikantaza, which is sitting with no specific object of concentration. We just sit, completely focused on the current moment and what is happening here and now.

The idea, of course, is that we carry that kind of present-moment awareness off the cushions and into our daily lives. Have you ever had the experience of being so wrapped up in something, let’s say a disagreement from work, that you’ve managed to get from your office to the station, ride the train, then get from your home station to your front door, but without having a clear idea of anything that happened along the way? You keep replaying the last argument, or envisioning the one you plan on having, and you completely blank out on what’s going on around you. You don’t hear that great song, see that beautiful sunset, feel the breeze on your face, or see that person who needs a hand, because you are too busy in your head. You are, for all intents and purposes, sleepwalking. We spend a lot of time like that.

Zen is about freedom, about being here in our own lives and not trapped in worry, guilt or anger. These habits are like gunk on a windshield. Wash the gunk off and you’ll be able to see where you are, and the road ahead.

Can you tell us about your experience with Zen meditation?

I’ve been doing zazen since I was in high school in Canada, so it’s been about thirty years. I read a very short description of Zen in the Book of Five Rings and was immediately struck by how simple and practical it seemed. I wasn’t able to find fellow meditators until I went to a lecture given a Tibetan Buddhist master at a local college. As luck had it, I sat beside a woman who had ties to the local Zen group, and she put me in touch with them.

Finding a group of people to practice with was a big turning point. Sitting on your own is hard, and you make a lot of mistakes. I figure I spent my first year or so hyperventilating.

I did a degree in philosophy, eventually came to Japan to practice aikido (which I famously lacked any talent for), and at some point started looking for a temple to practice at here. I found an English home page for Tokuun-in, and dropped by one Friday evening. I had come from a Rinzai group (Rinzai one of the major Zen traditions), and Tokuun-in was a Rinzai group, so it was easy to slip in and practice. The home page had been set up by a foreigner who’d practiced there years before, but had left before I arrived. One of the group spoke English, but my Japanese was also good enough by then to follow what was going on.

Over the years numbers dwindled as people got older or moved away. This was something I didn’t want to see happening. The facilities we have here are beautiful and the style of practice ideal for a wide range of people, so it seemed like a terrible waste. So I revamped the home page, put some notices up in places like Metropolis, and started providing orientations to people interested in trying out zazen. Over the years the older hands had been bringing me up to speed with the various temple jobs, and for the past five years or so I’ve been the jikijitsu, which means I lead the activities in the meditation hall.

Can you tell us about Tokuun-in?

Tokuun-in is a sub-temple of Kotokuji, which is in turn a sub-temple of Daitokuji in Kyoto. Kotokuji was founded in Odawara in 1570. In 1590, at the invitation of Tokugawa Ieyasu, it moved to Kanda, then to Shitaya in Ueno in 1635. At its height Kotokuji was a massive temple complex with 15 sub-temples. Following the Great Kanto Earthquake and and bombings in the Second World War, the Tokyo government wanted to develop the land around Ueno station and put in useful things like police and fire stations and a ward office, so Kotokuji was moved in stages to Nerima. This process was completed in 1978. Of this original temple complex, only two sub-temples remain in Ueno, Tokuun-in and Soun-in.

As a sub-temple, we maintain a close relationship with Kotokuji, and participate in annual events there. We’re currently gearing up for Kotokuji’s annual tea harvest, where we pick, dry, steam and roast all the tea that is used at Kotokuji and Tokuun-in throughout the year. Everything is done by hand over several days around Golden Week. It’s a fascinating process in an absolutely beautiful setting.

I thought the quote you included from the official site of Rinzai-Obaku Zen was great: “Zen is not a system of defined beliefs, but a path to clarity and awareness. As such it has no conflicts with science, and can enrich the inner life of followers of any religious tradition. East, west, north, or south, all are welcome.” Do you have practitioners from various religious backgrounds visiting Tokuun-in for meditation? Are any of them actively practising other religions while practising Zen?

At the end of every evening of sitting we get together in the caretaker’s apartment and have tea and a snack. We have people from a variety of backgrounds, but the last thing we tend to talk about is religion. There are usually a number of new people every week, and once we introduce ourselves we tend to settle on something pretty innocuous. Last week a lot of people seemed to have some sort of Texas connection, so we talked about that. There are times when the core group gets together and we drink something a little stronger than tea. You’ll see some fairly far-ranging philosophical and religious conversations then.

Zen groups tend to be pretty eclectic, and I think that a healthy and growing practice needs to accept helpful influences wherever they might come from. My own practice is basically Rinzai Zen, but has been happily infected by Soto Zen and Vipassana. Another major influence is the Sanbo Kyodan, a major stream of Zen that is based in Kamakura and has several Zen Masters who are also Catholic priests. A teacher there once told me that while the Buddha talked about the mind, Jesus talked about the heart. Hearing that, and spending some time practicing with that wonderful group, helped me heal a long-standing mental and emotional rift with Christianity. I was raised in a Christian community that was very insular and overbearing. Most of the rest of my family is still part of that church, but now I’m able to look back and recognize positive values that were instilled in me while I was there. For instance, even though many members of the church tend to socialize only among themselves, they do a lot of very positive charitable outreach. Some of my relatives embody the best of what Christianity has to offer because they get their hands dirty. They work with criminals, the poor, and kids who are in all kinds of trouble. It’s because of their example that I became involved with volunteer work again, both on a personal and professional level. Unlike in the U.S., issues of social justice have been almost completely ignored by Japanese Buddhism, and this huge gap in practice is something that will need to be addressed in the years to come. After all, food, shelter and safety are prerequisites for any positive human activity, including the search for enlightenment.

One thing that Zen is not, however, is evangelical. You won’t see any missionaries spreading the good news of Zen. Zen is not for everyone, and it’s not even something that I would especially recommend! It can be physically and mentally challenging at times, and you need to be brave and committed. A healthy sense of humor also helps. However, there are some people for whom this practice genuinely resonates. These people tend to have tried a number of other paths and found them wanting in some respect. It’s more like discovering, at the end of the day, that you’ve really been a Zen person all along. It’s like coming home. If it doesn’t feel like that, it’s probably best to try something else.

I loved the Zazen section on your home page, especially when you explained counting and forgetting to count and how the mind wanders. How long did it take you to get from only making it to two or three to making it to ten most of the time?

I honestly forget. What did take a long time was to stop beating myself up for losing concentration again and again (which is completely natural) and to start simply taking pleasure in coming back to the moment. The important thing is how often you come back to where you are, and what’s going on.

Do you find that practising truly elevates your awareness of each moment? Has there been a noticeable change in your life (awareness, outlook or something else) since you started meditating?

After thirty years, I’m still waiting for my superpowers. It’s frustrating.

A lot of people, when they start Zen practice, are very concerned about what they’ll “get,” and when. People want to “get” peace, compassion, or enlightenment. You will get stuff, but it won’t really be what you expect, you probably won’t get it in the way you expected and it won’t come when you expect. Ultimately, Zen practice isn’t about what you get, but what you let go of and what that lets you open up to.

As I practiced over the years all kinds of stuff happened. Deep states of concentration or bliss, sudden glimpses of insight, really sore knees – but all that stuff is temporary. Generally speaking, when I’m practicing I’m happier, less stuck in my head, and much less likely to get derailed emotionally by things that might go wrong. I’m also less likely to inflict collateral damage by triggering off of someone else’s anger or irritation.

Still, being present often means being with states that aren’t comfortable or pleasant. Even just sitting down with one’s own thoughts can be a frightening prospect. It’s not all puppy dogs and cotton candy in there. Given time, persistence and patience, things start to settle down. As you become less and less interested in attending rehearsals in your internal drama department, you free up space to be with the moment and with the world around you. You don’t get peace, but you learn not to beat your own head against the wall. You don’t get compassion, but you naturally open up to the needs of others. You don’t get enlightenment, but you act in more enlightened ways. These things are not states, they’re activities.

Everyone is Buddha – “distinctions of self and other, subject and object, or mind and matter break down and reveal a fundamental unity.” That’s deep. Like, really deep. My university French lit professor told me I’m not very deep (something about poetry analysis…), so not surprisingly, I need more explanation. Blow our minds, Wes.

There’s reality as it is, and then there’s the stories we tell ourselves about it. We build up a whole world of concepts that is necessary for doing things like paying taxes, building staircases and getting from Tokyo to Toronto. This is fine, we need to do these things. The problems start when we fail to see that those concepts are useful constructions and start thinking that they are real. Simply put, the word “popcorn” has absolutely nothing to do with what popcorn is or how it tastes. If you want to know what popcorn is, you should stop talking about it and eat some damn popcorn. Then, and only then, will you know what popcorn is.

The conceptual world can be a really nice place to live in because it floats above reality but is imperfectly connected with it. The concepts we use to get around are defined in terms of other concepts, and they are pliable enough so that we can often twist things around in ways that suit us. Have you ever had the experience of feeling that you’ve been treated unfairly by someone and been trapped for hours or days creating stories about how and why this happened, creating an entire alternate universe that makes you out to be the one on the side of good and righteousness and the other person the source of all that is evil, only to have it all come crashing down when you learn one detail that you didn’t know before? Oh, she never got the memo? Ah, he had to take his kid to the hospital. OK, that’s different then. The whole mirror universe just goes poof.

And what was all that wringing of hands and gnashing of teeth then?

So often we find that there are cracks, gaps or massive faults in these stories that we make up on a daily basis. This issue of Zen is that there are the same cracks, gaps and faults in all of our concepts, even the ones that we consider most fundamental. What is the self? Is it the body? Is it sensation? Our thoughts? Our memories? Our consciousness? What is the difference between “me” now and “me” ten minutes ago? Where do “I” end and “you,” or “the world,” begin?

Interestingly enough, we can use concepts themselves to start poking holes in concepts. Science helps us hugely in this regard. Ask a psychologist how reliable your perceptions of the world are, or how accurate your memories of your past are. Ask a physicist if you’re sitting “on” your chair or ask her how much empty space there is in a “solid” object. Ask a biologist or a doctor how independent you are from your environment, or if you’re one organism or a collection of many.

Still, all this is just more thinking. Zen is getting back to the experience of the real world, of our fundamental interconnectedness with all things. So we find a quiet space, turn down the lights, and, after we’ve calmed down a bit, begin to embrace this fundamental reality that exists beyond concepts and stories.

You go into great detail on your home page about clothing and posture. Can you give us a brief summary of the important points?

Clothing is no big deal. We ask people to dress comfortably but conservatively. This is mostly to reduce distractions. If someone’s doing walking meditation wearing fishnet stockings, a speedo and a bustier it’s going to get distracting for the beginners. Mind you, it’s no problem showing up at the temple dressed like that, but you’ll need to change.

Posture is fundamental. Zazen is seated meditation, and in Zen we don’t tend to shift around a lot, so finding a comfortable position that can be maintained for long periods of time is important. Luckily, after 2,500 years of Buddhist practice we’ve worked out a lot of the kinks. There are a number of kneeling and sitting positions that are possible, and we have all manner of cushions people can use to support themselves until their bodies gain flexibility. For those with injuries or conditions which prevent traditional postures, we’ve also got chairs. Some people bring their own yoga blocks or seiza benches.

If you’re new to zazen, please expect that it’s going to take a while, possibly months, for your body to get used to the posture. The less bendy you are the longer it’ll take, and the more uncomfortable the process will be. I always take a few minutes and walk around checking everyone’s posture, so if there’s something drastically wrong I can help straighten things out.

Etiquette – again, you go into great deal on the home page, but very briefly, what are the most important things to keep in mind for the newbie? In other words, how does one avoid being “that gaijin”?

As with so many other things in Japan, if you watch what other people are doing and do something similar, there won’t be any major problems. We provide a short orientation for all newcomers which covers posture, breathing, and how to move around the meditation hall. As people become regular participants we give more detailed instruction regarding the finer points. Most important rules for the first visit? Show up on time for orientation, don’t wear shorts, and don’t even try to stand up if your legs have fallen asleep.

You mention that reading about Zen is a mistake, but then you list some books anyway. Of the books that we can read even though we shouldn’t, which one do you recommend the most?

You’ve asked for one so I’ll give you two. Everyday Zen by Charlotte Joko Beck, and Sit Down and Shut Up by Brad Warner. And one more. Sosan no Hanashi, published by the Sanbo Kyodan Society, is a short, but classic primer. You can just Google it and find the pdf. (Editor’s note – look at that, we did it for you!)

That having been said, one evening sitting with us and you’ll know more about what Zen is than someone who’s read a hundred books on the subject.

The details -> It’s in your ad, but please remind us – when/what time are sessions, where is Tokuun-in, how can we contact you, what should we do before our first session?

We meet every Friday night at Tokuun-in in Ueno from 7-9:15pm. First-time participants should read the information on our website and send an email to tokyozazen@jcom.home.ne.jp to make an appointment for an orientation (these begin at 6:15pm).

I forgot to ask about language. Of course you speak English, Japanese (and maybe a little French?), but what if you’re not there? Is there any other English-language support available, or support for other non-Japanese language speakers?

As orientations are always by appointment, there’s never an issue. For regular participants who don’t speak Japanese, there’s always someone who speaks English. 50/50 chance for French and German.

Thanks, Wes, for taking the time to answer all of our questions. Folks – this is your chance to learn to rein in that never-ending ticker-tape in your mind of to-dos and already-dids, at least for a while. To reiterate, to those who are keen, visit the Tokuun-in webpage or send an e-mail to Wes at tokyozazen@jcom.home.ne.jp.

Tags: advertiser, Body, classifieds, Features, meditation, Mind, Mind Body Spirit, Spirit, Zazen, Zen

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Last update: 2014-12-19 02:11
Author: Metropolis Classifieds
Revision: 1.2

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