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An in-depth look into the Zazen Experience

            With half an eye open I peered over at my coworker besides me. He sat with a slightly troubled expression as the man standing above him stopped his brief patrol and met his gaze with an understanding and dutiful expression.

 

            My coworker then clasped his hands together, and prostrated himself in a half bow. And without a moments delay his back was struck with a long and thin plank of wood.

 

And all I could think in my mind at the time was “Oh God, I’m next.”

But first, let us rewind a bit.

 

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            On a warm autumn day, my team and I made our way to the Erin-Ji Temple in Koshu city just under a half an hour from central Kofu. Its large grounds were encroached by an abundance of nature, all dyed in beautiful autumn hues. And here the Gingko trees were so plentiful that until my coworker who had never seen one before asked me what it was- I almost forgot that it was endangered.

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            While we took in the nature and slowly proceeded deep into the grounds, to the main temple we were met by our Guide for the day, Chief Priest Kaneko. I couldn’t tell what shocked me more, his very impressive American accent or the fact that his first name was Soy (yes like the sauce). But with his welcoming demeanor and Dad-like humor I could tell instantly that this trip around was going to be quite the enjoyable occasion.

            Without further ado we made our way to a large tatami room with a shrine in the center and in an adjacent alcove with a beautiful view of the outer garden, there were just enough floor pillows for our group of seven plus Mr. Soy.

“Recently, the concept of mindfulness has been very popular in the US and abroad. And so many people have come to our temple, expecting that same concept. However mindfulness meditation and Zazen are a bit different,” he explained before putting it simply." 

“Mindfulness is to gain something. And Zazen is about letting go of something.”

            To further illustrate this, he had us imagine a cup filled with water. Then imagine filling that cup with water further. What would happen?

            One member of our group answered almost poetically “it would over flow, and any further teachings or learnings would be impossible. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. 1957. I think we read the same book.”

            “Page 112?”

            “113.”

            We laughed.

 

            Mr. Soy then explained that for Zen monks, emptying out your mind through Zazen allows new wisdom and knowledge to enter and thus was very important. And so he invited us to try the same.

            Our first attempt was done with nothing but the simple instruction of minding our posture and inhaling through our noses. Our main and only goal was to sit motionless, and empty our minds completely. No useless thoughts. Or rather no thoughts once so ever. And through that, attain enlightenment.

Easy right?

Nope.

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            After the clapping together of two wooden planks and the clear striking of a bell signaled the end of our first attempt, Mr. Soy asked us how it went.

“I couldn’t help but think about what I wanted for lunch” said one group member.

“There was one second where I didn’t think about anything. But then I realized I was thinking and immediately thought, I did it! And basically I ended up thinking again.”

            As for me, my first and immediate thought was “I think, therefore I am,” and then started wondering if it is even possible to not think about anything at all before breaking out into a song in my head because of the daunting silence.

It was clear that we all had quite a similar experience.

No wonder it takes years to reach enlightenment.

After telling us not to take our less than successful attempt to heart, Mr. Soy then prepped us with some tips and tricks for our second round.

The key, he said. Was to count your breaths.

In, one--- out.

In, two--- out.

In, three --- out.

            All the way to five and then you start over. Then if you mess up and start thinking, you also start over. Counting is supposed to help us stayed focused on one thing and to not let any other thoughts distracted us.

            However, this time another factor was added.

            Instead of meditating with us, Mr. Soy planned to walk through our group while holding a long thing stick called a Keisaku. If you find yourself distracted and other thoughts come flowing in while he passes in front of you, you were supposed to put your palms together and bow towards him. Once you do so, he will do the same and then use the keisaku to strike your back (in a non-painful way) and then you go back to trying again.

            It didn’t take long for the first member of our group to get hit.

            Without any interrupting thoughts I had successfully managed to count to sixty and yet, with the sound of my neighbor getting his slaps on the back my peaceful time was interrupted by one thought.

            “Oh God, I’m next.”

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            But by the time I hesitantly opened my eyes (zazen can be done with eyes half-opened or fully closed), he was already gone and I was free to painlessly start my counting again.

            All in all I managed to count to 60 enough without interruption to know that our session lasted 10 minutes. I was quite proud of myself, although a bit like the odd one out seeing as out of our group of seven I was the only one who didn’t get hit. But overall I felt a sense of pride.

            Not too long after we were met by Zen Master Mr. Furukawa who proceeded to burst my bubble.

            “Every time we get people who say with pride. ‘I didn’t falter, I counted the entire time without fail!’ Of course I praise them a little but at the same time, people like that haven’t exactly reach enlightenment either. After all, if you keep thinking about these numbers. Your mind isn’t exactly clear yet.”

            And there went my one little bragging point. It’s clear that I still have a lot to learn.

            The Zazen experience at the beautiful Erin-ji Temple is certainly something I would recommend. From the kindness of the two Mr. Soy and Mr. Furukawa, to the nature that surrounds you and the opportunity to really empty your mind and work towards inner peace the place has so much to offer. Plus, for those who love history Erin-ji is actually famous for being the final resting place of a certain warlord who used to run these parks.

              But if that’s what tickles your fancy just like my own, it’s highly recommended that you visit Erin-Ji and unearth its history for yourself!

Also, did I mention how absolutely beautiful the building is?

Check out the information below and experience zazen and the deep beauty and history of Erin-ji for yourself!

Transportation

Nearest I.C.

Chuo Expressway, Katsunuma IC

Nearest station

JR Chuo Main Line, Enzan Station

Transportation details

By bus: From the south exit of JR Chuo Main Line, Enzan Station, take the Nishizawa-keikoku-bound bus and get off at the Erinji-mae stop.

Published on

  • March 30, 2020

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