The last 3 days at Fumonken have without a doubt been the most intense and hardest thing I have experienced in my life. Every month, there is a period (usually 1-7 days) of intensive meditation (zazen) called Sesshin 接心, which translates to touching the heart-mind. This is quite a beautiful phrase, but experiencing it is a whole different world. I asked Eh-san (who has been living at the temple for 2 years now) how Sesshin is, and he described that “it was hell,” then chuckled a little after. Haha, man was I in for a treat. Below is the schedule of a day of Sesshin:
04:00 : Wake up, little toilet, morning sutras. Zazen
07:00 : Breakfast. Cleaning.
08:30 : Tea time
09:45 : Temple job
10:30 : Zazen
12:00 : Lunch, get some rest
13:30 : Temple job
15:00 : Tea time, bath time
17:30 : evening sutras, Zazen
20:30 : Dinner
21:00 : Zazen
23:00 : All lights off.
The chunks of zazen time were broken up into 30 minute sessions each, with a 3-5 minute of a standing meditation break in between each one. Also, we would have 15 minutes of kihin (walking zen) after every 2 sessions. The sutras and mealtimes were also fairly challenging because we had to sit in seiza the whole time. I think by the time we had our 5th zazen session, my knees already felt like breaking and I felt as if there was an acupuncture needle stuck in the nerve of my hip being rotated
around. However, the worst part was realizing that it was only the 5th out of 18 sessions, and that it was only the first day. I remember that when we had a 15 minute break for brushing our teeth at night, I just went into my room and collapsed onto the floor, too sore to crawl under my mosquito net, just lying there with an impending reminder that I only had 10 minutes left. For sure, there were times when I wished that I had never come to the temple, but that was when persisting was the most important. It was as if the pain and distractions grew exponentially, and if I didn’t keep up my practice, I would just drown in my sensations and thoughts and not get anything out of it. The stakes literally increased every minute, but there was no way that I was going to give up, not this time. I think that meditation is my ultimate challenge, I need the determination to withstand the temptations to fidget, move, complain; and I didn’t want to be somebody who couldn’t sit without moving for more than 15 minutes forever.
Training only begins when it gets hard.
For the first time in my life though, I experienced a type of samādhi, a state of complete serenity, tranquility, and concentration. It is said that there are 66 moments of time in a snap of a finger, and I felt that I could experience every 66 of those moments. Yet it wasn’t only just concentration, I also withheld my sati. It was like having a very strong concentration on one thing, and a very strong awareness of my surroundings. Samādhi and sati, each two wings of a bird. The pain was still there, but it didn’t matter anymore. It is quite hard to put in words, and as Venerable Yifa put it: meditation is not something you understand, but something you realize.
At the end of it, I learned and experienced a lot during this Sesshin. I definitely got something out of it, but the process was hell – I told myself that I never wanted to do anything like this ever again. But these challenges of determination are sort of addicting. I have to admit that during Sesshin, I had a tint of excitement coursing through my blood (albeit it wasn’t going to my legs as I was losing feeling 🙂 ). I’m not sure if I would recommend this to everybody, but I think you should try everything at least twice. Training only begins when it gets hard, so I guess the only thing to do now is to go back and face it again!
When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.
However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.
I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.
Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.
Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.
7 Dimensions of Religion
1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.
2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others
3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.
4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.
5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.
6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.
7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.
Chinese Buddhist Art
Chinese Buddhist Art
Burmese Buddhist Art
And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.
For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.
What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?
What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?
There was a foreigner who visited a Zen Master to study with the master. The foreigner was a scholar with an extensive background in Buddhist Studies and came prepared to have big debates regarding Zen. After making the customary bows, he began to talk about his extensive doctrinal background and rambled on and on about the many sutras he had studied.
The master listened patiently and then began to make tea. When it was ready, the master poured the tea into the scholar’s cup until it began to overflow and run all over the floor. The scholar saw what was happening and shouted, “Stop! Stop! The cup is full; you can’t get anymore in.”
The master stopped pouring and said: “You are like this cup, you are full of ideas about the Buddha’s Way. How can you ask for a taste of my tea if your cup is already full? I can’t put anything in. Before I can teach you, you’ll have to empty your cup.”
While this story shares a simple message, I feel that many of us get too caught up with arguing and being correct rather than having humility and being ready to learn. The quintessential image of a college classroom that comes to mind is centered on politically and intellectually charged individuals arguing left and right about what is true and what is not. However, while engaging in such a dialectic is certainly beneficial, it is hard to believe that we know everything, especially as young first years in college. We should consider our education in such a way, whenever we walk into a classroom or engage in conversations seeking for advice.
Sticking to what we already know is easy, but growing and cultivating knowledge requires emptying our cup of ego.
Tea time is one of my favorite parts of our daily schedule at the temple. We all gather around a fireplace usually after cleaning the temple or eating to relax and enjoy some tea and food. It is also one of the least strict activities at the temple, the only rule is that we sit in seiza at the beginning when we greet everybody, then we can change to whatever comfortable sitting position. At Fumonken (the temple I’m staying at), it is very relaxed and everybody is telling jokes and laughing. I’ve also learned many interesting things about how Japanese culture has shifted after Japan’s push to westernization.
In Japan, many words are starting to be adopted from English. Especially among younger people, it can be seen as cooler to use the adopted English words rather than the original Japanese words. Osho-san gave us an example: “architecture” in Japanese is 建築 (kenchiku), but more people are starting to say it in Japanglish, pronouncing the English syllables in Japanese (something like arkitekchoru). Representing the words like this is called katakana, and we were talking about how this was bad because while Japanese people can read it (like letters in an alphabet), the etymology and meaning behind the original kanji characters is lost. Like in Chinese, every character has a history behind it, so in a sense, Japanese history is being lost as more and more people replace original characters with empty syllables.
Another interesting thing we talked about was how the philosophy of Japanese education has changed. From Tao, Zen, and even Japanese marital arts, 守破離 (shu ha ri, each character roughly meaning follow/obey, detach/break, leave/separate) describes the stages of learning to mastery. How it goes is that a student strictly follows the rules of their master, eventually getting to the point of mastery where they can break those rules and surpass their master. Nowadays, most people think about 破離 (ha ri), the 守 is dropped – there is no more obeying. Osho-san said that Japanese people started to focus more and more on talent (very Western) and forgo the discipline of following the rules. “If there is no more following, what are they supposed to break from?” But staying at a traditional zen temple, the important dedication to obeying rules is very clear.
The first obstacle most people face when meditating is pain, well at least it is for me. But I never thought I would be able to overcome it from the sound of water droplets. The water fountain was full from the morning rain, and throughout our evening zazen we could hear water dropping from the bamboo pipe to the basin.
Drip, drip, drip.
My knees are killing me, I’m starting to lose feeling in my feet.
Drip, drip, drip.
I need to shift my legs, I can’t stand the pain anymore.
Drip, drip, drip.
I’m listening to the water, and I realize that I’m not thinking too much about the water like I am with my pain. It’s as if the water is passing by me through time. I hear it – then when it stops, I let it go.
Drip, drip, drip.
Wait, why don’t I treat my pain like this? My pain is just like the water, I feel it, then let it go. Almost instantly (and kind of scarily), my obsession with the pain dropped. It’s like when you are sitting at a cafe and you hear other people chatting around you. You don’t dramatize the chatter, you just hear it and accept it as a part of the background. The biggest thing for me was not making such a big deal out of the pain – before I would be complaining about how long I’ve been sitting, plotting how to move my legs as silently as possible. However, I just needed to treat the pain like the drops of water I was hearing.
It was also at this time that I realized I’ve been doing meditation incorrectly all my life. I’ve grown up with Vipassana meditation, and one of the major things we learn to do while meditating was to mentally note the sensations in out bodies.
Hearing, hearing, smelling, smelling, pain, pain.
But now, I believe I’ve been thinking about noting pain incorrectly. I’ve heard teachers tell me that as you noted the pain, it would eventually go away. So then I started to think of the noting as a way to ease the pain. I would be noting “pain, pain, pain…” ultimately hoping that the pain would go away. I started to get frustrated if the pain didn’t go away, was I meditating correctly? The purpose of noting is to detach yourself from the sensations that are arising.
Think about why it is so easy to just accept the dripping of water and the chatter in a cafe: they are easy to pass by because they are not a part of you, you don’t own them. So to do the same for pain, you can not think that you own the pain. The pain is not part of yourself, and thinking about it as cafe chatter really helps. And ultimately, we’ll want to detach from our bodies and leave behind our notions of the “self” (anattā, Pali).
“Because if your eyes are closed, you are too focused on yourself.”
“A lady once asked a zen master for help because she had trouble sleeping. He told her to spread open her arms and legs, open her eyes and mouth as wide as possible – open all holes in her body. She was then able to sleep.”
That night during zazen, I was not having trouble sleeping, but rather I had a lot of pain in my knees from sitting. The more I focused on the pain, the more intense it seemed, I felt like I was going to go crazy from the pain. So I decided to give the story a try. I couldn’t spread my legs open, but I opened my mouth, nose, eyes, and hands as wide as possible. Rather than trying to ignore the pain by focusing on something else, opening everything intensified my senses. My nose picked up the strong scent of tatami mats, I saw everything in the garden in front of me, I heard the silence in the room, and I could feel myself sitting on the zafu (cushion).
But the pain in my knees did not go away, it was there with everything else. However, I did not know if the pain increased or went away – I knew there was pain and that was it. This opened me to a whole new dimension of this quote:
Nothing we see or hear is perfect. But right here in the imperfection is perfect reality. – Shunryu Suzuki
The pain certainly did not go away, which would have been the ideal (yet unreal) solution. Opening all my senses allowed me to take in everything around me, including the pain, and for the first time I felt like I was alive, the perfect reality. I then started to understand why this would help you go to bed. Are you starting to see the connection too?
People that have trouble sleeping are probably too in their heads while they are lying in bed. Having a monkey-like mind jumping around keeps us awake. Yet spreading open your body, feeling every muscle stretch in your face, feeling your back on the firm mattress, hearing the wind blowing from outside puts you in the present reality (sounds pretty cliche, but one can really only understand by doing). This brought me back to the very first thing Oshō-san (the head monk) told me when I initially arrived:
Knowledge is action.
Then it also hit me, chopping wood is in fact the same thing as zazen. Like Chuang Tzu’s Cook Ting story (I talk about it in this post about Confucianism and Tao), when you have been chopping wood for a long time, you let go of the distinction between you and the knife. Like Cook Ting, you let go of the distinction between you, the knife, and the ox. Like in zazen, you let go of the distinction between you (self), the pain, and the environment. You accept everything simply as they are.
When I first arrived, the head monk greeted me and told me to sit down and have some tea.
“Knowledge is action, do you understand?”
“Sometimes people keep asking why we do this, why we put our chopsticks on the table at this angle, why we sit like this. But just do as I do. Bow over here, bow over here, sit in seiza like this, ok?”
After, I met Sho-san, a 27 year old monk who has been staying at this temple for four years now.
“Eto… follow me, I will show you your temple job.”
My temple job would be chopping firewood, burning it to heat up the bath, and cleaning the bath. He showed me how to cut and burn the wood, then gave me a tour around the temple. There was a distinct smell of tatami mats, and the temple looked like it was straight out of a stock photo, with sliding screens that opened to beautiful trees and scenery.
After the tour, we had tea time where I got to learn more about Sho-san. He was from Hiroshima and was a university student until he decided to come to Fumonken to practice Zen. He was covered in sweat from sweeping the temple grounds and had a serious yet happy expression resting on his face. He asked me a lot about America as we enjoyed the tea.
At dinner, I met two other people staying at the temple – Clara (born in France), and Eh-san (finished high school 2 years ago and came to live in the temple). There were a lot of rules when eating dinner: we had to eat three chopstick-fulls worth of rice before we could eat anything else, scoop every dish two times, use a pickle to wash our bowls, and eat three rounds of food with everybody. What surprised me was that everybody ate extremely fast, I had to rush to keep up with them. After about 10 minutes, my legs started to feel numb from sitting in seiza, but we had around 20 minutes left. I was trying to shift my weight to relieve the pain in my legs, and they laughed, saying that I would eventually get the hang of it.
During tea time after dinner, the head monk and I talked a lot about Eastern vs Western ideas.
“The West is concerned with obtaining knowledge: there is a self, and an object. 自 (self), and 他 (other). The West also has 理想 (ideals), that is why many go to universities to study.”
“The East is concerned with 本來 (the natural, original) . There is no dualism in the world. When you chop wood, you first think that the axe is an object outside yourself. But there is no separation, when you keep cutting wood, the axe and you are the same thing.”
“無 (not/non-), if you keep practicing zen, you will get to the point where you accept everything as it is and do not care. But this is not the goal, there is no goal. If there is a goal, that means there is a start. But this is dualistic. It is like 道 (in Taoism, process).”
I was trying to teach back to him to try to understand it better myself. “Let’s keep talking, the more we talk, the more I am starting to understand.”
“Yes, knowledge is action.”
Then he told me more examples and stories before we took our baths and got ready for zazen. This was definitely the most painful part of the night. We had three consecutive 30-minute sessions with about a 30 second stretch break in between each session. We do zazen with our eyes open, because if we close our eyes we become too focused with ourselves. Sitting in hankahuza (half-lotus), there was alternating pains in each leg, and that wasn’t the best feeling in the world.
The next morning, we woke up at 4 AM to sweep the outer and inner temple grounds. Then after breakfast, we had tea time where I learned about Eh-san’s history. He was 20 years old, and was failing high school because he was playing too much Puzzles and Dragons (smartphone game) and watching too much Youtube. He called himself a NEET (Not Employed Educated Training). The principal told his mother that he would not graduate, so then she set Eh-san to a temple to discipline himself. Eh-san had to give up playing games and told me about how the most important part of zen was standing/bearing the pain in zazen.
“When I first started Zazen, it was very very very painful. But you have to stand it! Stand, stand stand. Don’t mind, don’t mind, don’t mind. Don’t care, don’t care, don’t care. Here I am 2 years.”
He thinks his mother started to regret sending him to a temple because Eh-san decided to start living at the temple.
“I realized that I needed this to get out of the ‘hell’ I was in.”
“When I ran out of stamina in Puzzles and Dragons, I would watch Youtube, when I was done watching YouTube, I would go chat. Puzzles and Dragons, Youtube, Chatting, it was a cycle.”
Damn, this reminded me a lot of the time when I used to play a lot of League of Legends.
Well, I did not expected the monastery to be like this, it was a lot more intense than I imagined. It was only the first day, and my legs are pretty sore already. These next ten days will be long.