April 14, 2008
by Nanase Hayashi
Haven’t you ever felt that Japanese traditional things, such as temples and gardens, are naturally simple? The basis of Japanese culture is Zen, a philosophy which aims at simplicity. You may wonder, what is the importance of being simple? It is a return to a fundamental existence. All of us are constantly thinking, our heads full of noise: desires, ideas, worries, memories, images, bits of music, sounds from the outside. But we need to let them go, to once again be able to feel with a pure heart and mind.
Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual routine.”
Zazen is seated meditation, a Zen Buddhist practice to achieve enlightenment. Originally it was created by Buddha in India and
was imported and changed considerably in China. After that, a Japanese monk brought it to Japan. In some Zen Buddhist sects,
trainee monks do zazen for a long term as part of their training, even without eating or sleeping. It is very hard, especially for beginners, to completely clear the mind, but the most important thing during meditation is concentrating on breathing. Focusing just on breathing, or the most basic human activity, is the best way to be close to “zero”. If you keep on sitting and separating from all the things of daily life, it will also make you calm and relaxed both mentally and physically.
[How to Do Zazen]
Zazen classes are usually divided into several sessions and the burning of a stick of Japanese incense called okou is used to time a session. Before and after a session, we bow with our hands in gasshô pose (palms together, finger tips pointing upward).
1. Sit cross-legged on a cushion called zabu.
(Place your right foot over your left thigh and your left foot over your right thigh — or placing only one foot over the other thigh is easier for beginners.)
2. During zazen, place your hands together as the figure on your legs.
3. Relax your shoulders, straighten your back and then breathe slowly and calmly.
4. If you have a lapse in concentration during a session, you can request to be struck on your shoulders with a wooden stick called keisaku. Striking the shoulders helps you reconcentrate since there are pressure points on the shoulders. Wait with your hands in the gasshô pose, and and then you and the priest or monitor will bow to each other. You bend your body forward to accept the keisaku.
If you’d like to observe Japanese culture, I’d definitely recommend you to try zazen. You can find an essence of Japanese spirit in it. Shunko-in Temple, which is a sub-temple located near the north gate of Myoshinji Temple in Kyoto’s Ukyo ward, offers you the best Zazen class in English for non-Japanese visitors. Shunko-in is a special Zen-based temple that also has connections to Shinto and Christianity; they are shown by its garden symbolizing Ise Grand Shrine and its sliding door paintings depicting Christians who took refuge at the temple from persecution during Japan’s feudal period. If you join the temple tour of Shunko-in, you can see them before or after the zazen class. Both of them are worth seeing.
42 Myoshinji-cho, Hanazono, Ukyo-ku, Kyoto 616-8035 JAPAN
⇒Visit the temple’s website for details
-Take the JR Sagano line from JR Kyoto Stn. to Hanazono Sta.(10-15min.).
The south gate of the Myoshinji Temple complex is a short walk from the station.
-Take Kyoto City Bus #26 from Kyoto Sta. or Shijo Karasuma, and get off at Myoshinji Kitamon-mae bus stop(30-40min.).
-Take Kyoto City Bus #10 from Sanjo Keihan and get off at Myoshinji Kitamon-mae bus stop.