Passive Meditation 3
Although – like all the other Buddhist branches – it follows the
- Four Noble Truths and the
- Eightfold Path,
there are subtle differences – that we will explore.
It is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism and therefore, as such, the teachings of the Buddha have the most important place.
Zen Buddhism Bodhisattvas
They share many ‘saints’ or Bodhisattvas, with the rest of the Mahayana tradition.
A Bodhisattva is someone who has become ‘Enlightened’, but purposefully delays his entry into Nirvana (or heaven), until all other beings have entered before him, and he is committed to helping them achieve this.
(A typical Bodhisattva saying is – If I know how to swim, and even one other being cannot, then it is right to remain behind in this world, to assist them until they know how to save themselves from drowning).
Zen Buddhism Vs. Buddhism: Differences
There are two main differences that separate Zen from the other Buddhist branches;-
- Firstly – the concept of using Koans as a form of teaching.
- Secondly – the concept of Shibumi or Shibui which is also similar to another Japanese concept called Wabi-sabi
Zen Buddhism Vs. Buddhist: Meaning of Differences
Let’s look at what these mean;-
Shibumi, Shibui and Wabi-sabi are Japanese ideas that are hard to translate accurately as there is no real equivalent in English, but for you to get an idea of what they mean we can look at the following close ways to describe them;-
- ……The use of an understated elegance and simplicity.
- ……A sense of freshness and quietness.
- ……A quiet beauty, that sets up a spiritual longing.
- ……Beauty in a simple and direct way, without being ‘flashy.’
- ……Bitter/sweet good taste.
- ……A pleasing aesthetic.
If you could somehow make a mixture of all these descriptions, then the result would probably be close to the correct meaning !
Shibumi or Shibui can be used as being applied to anything in life
- ……expert artisans – such as musicians, actors, singers, potters – or
- ……fashions and behavior – or
- ……events or performances – or
- ……anything else that was beautiful by being understated, or
- ……by being exactly the way it was meant to be without any build up.
Today, in Japan, even baseball players are sometimes said to be Shibui, when they contribute to the success of their team, without doing anything to make themselves stand out individually. (Quite the opposite of many of our Western Baseball players !)
We could probably say that the opposite of Shibui is ‘flashiness.’
Thus – in Zen Buddhism – there is always a simplicity and sense of spiritual beauty in every aspect.
Zen Buddhism Monastry: Zen Buddhism Temple
A very good example of this is the “Dry Rock Garden” in Ryoanji, a Zen Temple on the outskirts of Kyoto in Japan.
Here is a photo that may explain better than words –
This dry landscape was thought to have been built in the 14th Century,
and its special claim to fame is that there are 15 moss covered rocks,
that are so placed that from anywhere around the garden you can never see all 15 at one time,
- – never more than 14,
- – supposedly you can only see the 15th when you have reached Enlightenment !
The elegant simplicity of this garden,
with carefully raked gravel,
the minimum of distractions, and
the uniqueness of the stones’ placement so that you can never see them all at the same time
……..- is a good example of Shibumi.
Zen Meditation Center
There is a very special spiritual feel there, and not just because it is a Temple
… but because of the relaxed,
………..simple feelings that it gives to onlookers – (one of my favorite places !)
Also the placement of these stones is – in a way – a type of Koan in itself…you will understand what I mean when we talk about Koans after this.
This whole feeling of Shibumi/Shibui runs throughout Zen Buddhism, in every Zen temple there is a sense of careful attention to minor details, an amazing cleanliness, and a complete feeling of equality in the physical work done by the monks – even the head monk (or Sensei) helps with the gardening and cleaning, in the same way and equally to, all of the others.
To give an example, once in a temple in Kyoto, Japan, called Kinkakuji – I was wandering around and came across a beautiful moss garden.
Perhaps a quarter of an acre of assorted mosses underneath pine trees – and there were a group of monks, on their knees, in a line, quietly picking up the dead pine needles from the moss ! I think that in the West we would just leave the pine needles there !
The other concept that I mentioned – KOANS – is also very typically associated only with Zen Buddhism.
It involves a system of teaching where the Zen Buddhist teacher – or Sensei – gives a strange question to his students, that on first thinking about it…has no sense or answer. For Example;-
……“Two hands clap and there is a sound – what is the sound of one hand clapping ?” – (this is probably the most well known and famous example – but others that are less well known include) –
……”Without thinking of good or evil, what was your original face before your mother and father were born ?”
……”Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not ?”
Koans are designed that there is no one right answer, and no one wrong answer….the important thing is in HOW the question is answered.
Koans put questions that cannot be answered by the rational mind, but can only be answered by using ones intuition.
Thus the teacher (Sensei) is able to assess the spiritual progress of the pupil by how he answers the Koans.
There can also be Koan-like situations, rather than words, that the Sensei may test his students with. One example that I like comes to mind, as follows –
A young Zen monk is about to transfer to a different monastery, a fairly common occurrence in Zen practice. So before he leaves he should go to see the abbot to say goodbye,
So he does, and the abbot says that he has a gift for him. In Zen, it is common to accept gifts and be appreciative – but to refuse the gift would be considered rude, and therefore wrong.
The abbot takes a pair of tongs and picks up a red hot piece of charcoal from the small fire pit used to make tea, and offers it to the young monk !
The young monk is totally confused, and does not know what he is supposed to do – to accept the gift would cause him to be burned, but to refuse would be rude and therefore wrong – both are things that he cannot do – so he runs out very distressed.
He meditates on this for a whole week, and then returns once more to say goodbye to the abbot – exactly the same thing happens, and once more he does not know what the abbot wants him to do – so runs out once more.
After yet one more week of deep meditation on this Koan-like situation, he returns yet once more to say goodbye.
As before, the abbot picks up a coal in his tongs and offers it as a gift.
The young monk simply replies – “Thank you !”
The old abbot smiles, nods his head, puts the coal back in the fire pit.
“You may go now,” he says !
I think that it is a combination of these two subtle concepts – Shibumi and Koans – that has made Zen so popular in the West.
There are now Zen centers all over the place, and many books with names that start with – “The Zen of….” – that I am sure you have seen.
Let’s look at Zen meditation.
As you would expect, Zen meditation is similar to the Samatha meditation taught in other Buddhist schools, but also has a close connection to many of the Yoga meditations.
It is for this reason that many Yoga schools also teach aspects of Zen.
There are three main component parts/types of Zen meditation – which is also called ZAZEN, these are;-
2. Koan introspection.
3 Just sitting !
(There is a rather typical Zen simplicity to this list !).
Normally a ‘session’ of Zazen includes all three kinds, with breaks in between where one walks around and does a gentle meditation at the same time – this gives a chance to stretch out any stiffness !
Typically Zen practitioners either sit cross legged – or a variety of similar positions – on a mat with a circular or square special cushion, called a Zafu. Sometimes they will use a small meditation bench, called a Seiza Bench.
Modern meditators may also use a chair, but it should have a cushion or soft wedge in the area of the small of the back to keep the natural curve of the spine.
The meditation session is typically started by ringing a bell three times, and finished by ringing it once.
The sitting or Zazen meditations are usually alternated with walking-around meditations, as I mentioned.
As opposed to other meditation schools, the eyes are typically not closed completely, but are open just a tiny little bit but – de-focused.
The meditations are usually done in groups, but may also be done alone.
Let’s look at each method – one by one, but done as a sequence;-
Concentration – This is usually done using breathing meditation in a similar way to the one we did in the Yoga section – but with a few slight changes, so lets give an example of a typical Zen one –
Firstly though, remember before when we talked about the Dantien, or ‘Center of Gravity ?’
In the Zen tradition it is called the Hara – and just in case you forgot – it is about three fingers breadth below your navel, and two fingers breadth inside the belly from there – we will be using this as a focus as you will see.
Sit comfortably, using a Zafu, a Seiza bench or a chair
… with your back supported
… warm enough
… and relaxed
… close your eyes about three quarters closed, until you cannot really see clearly anymore, but are aware of ‘the outside’
…put your hands in a ‘Mudra’ like in the picture above
…and take all your awareness down to your center of gravity, or Hara.
Very slowly start to breathe in and out, and at the same time imagining that each breath is going down to that Hara point…..then start to mentally count with each breath….each breath in – do to a count of 5…hold the breath for a count of 3….and let it out again to a count of 5…then pause for a count of 3.
(each count should be with about one second between each number, or about the same speed as your pulse)
Do this about 10 times, until it feels quite comfortable, and concentrate on your breath going to that Hara point- push your belly out with each ‘in’ breath to help it get there….then increase the number of seconds of each breath to 6 — 6 seconds in…pause 3 seconds…6 seconds out…pause 3 seconds.
Again do this about 10 times, until you are comfortable with it…then…slowly increase the times of each breath…the lengths of inhaling and exhaling…by 1 second after each 10 breaths or so- or until you are comfortable with each previous step.
Keep on doing this until you are up to 10 seconds for each breath in, and 10 seconds for each breath out.
If you feel entirely comfortable at this stage (or after you have done it several times and are getting better at it)…then start to slowly increase the number of seconds between each breath….at the ends of inhaling and exhaling…up to 4 seconds…then 5…and so on up to whatever feels comfortable for you.
Finally, after about 10 minutes of this (later you can increase the time if you wish)…..slowly stop concentrating on the breathing…allow your breathing to do what it wants…slowly fully open your eyes…and take a couple of minutes to get back in the ‘here – and – now.’
That finishes the first part of the meditation – the concentration part- and now we come to the ‘break’…so slowly get to your feet, trying to stay in a meditation feeling…move slowly…gently stretch…and gently look at things around you with ‘gentle eyes’, but trying not to think about anything in particular, stay very loose and relaxed. Take about 3-5 minutes or so, then gently sit again for the second part….the Koan
Sit as before…eyes almost closed as before…..have part of your mind still just watching your breathing…and with another part – think about the question – “What is the face of God“….(this is a good all purpose Koan that is appropriate for anyone in any religion)…..just let your mind explore that idea…if your mind begins to wander..then gently bring it back to the Koan….do this for about 5 minutes …(to start, and you can increase the time later if you wish)….then…gently open the eyes wide and come back to ‘now’.
In the same way as before…take a stretch break for 5 minutes, and then sit once more for the final part, where you are Just sitting!
Let yourself relax as before…eyes almost closed, and a part of your mind ‘keeping an eye’ on your breathing…then….just watch what comes into your mind…without being a part of it…without getting involved in it…but just watching your thoughts —
(you need to almost have 3 different parts to your mind– one watching the breathing – one watching the thoughts – and one just “doing its thing !”)
….do this for about 5 minutes to start, and increase later…at the end of the 5 minutes…gently open eyes wide…come back to the present…and slowly stand up after a couple of minutes and have a HUGE stretch !
How do you feel ?
I think that you will experience a slightly different feeling from the other meditations that we have tried – am I right?
I find it interesting to notice that each kind of meditation leaves you with a slightly different feeling, or almost ‘taste’ associated with each one.
Remember also that later on I will be giving you full instructions for how to build your own Zen meditation bench – or Seiza bench, if you want to.
So that brings us to the end of the Zen section…I hope that you enjoyed it, and it would probably be interesting and valuable for you to meditate, or ‘do Zazen,’ with a group of others.
Doing it in a group is somehow more powerful – (and as an extra bonus – someone else is watching the clock and doing the timing for you, so that’s one thing you don’t have to be concerned with !)
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