Then the train came ringing into Nippori station. "You've arrived at Nippori" the announcement said every three minutes as the Yamanote train ran circles round Tokyo. I heard it's steel wheels roaring down the track from miles away. My head so quiet I thought I was lying between the tracks as the train came in.
These were two of the hyper-sensations I experienced while meditating at Takuboku Zen Center 澤木道場 in Nippori 日暮里, Tokyo. The center is located just a three minute walk uphill from Nippori station on Tokyo's busy Yamanote line 山手線, making transportation convenient but concentration challenging.
The tatami floored zendo 禅道 meditation hall sits on the second floor of the center, and, true to Zen aesthetic principles, is sparse and serene. The only ornamentation in the hall was a Buddha altar (with doors closed in the picture), two hanging scrolls, and a framed piece of calligraphy at the rear. The framed piece says 直心道場 and translates roughly as "the heart is the real training hall."
Keeping with the Zen minimalism, there wasn't an air conditioner anywhere to be found; hence the sweat running down my face, chest, arms, and legs. Everyone was sweating their asses off- literally. All the screened windows were open but not a breeze stirred the 90% humidity, 90 degree day. With a new train arriving every three minutes and the heat unbearable, I wondered if I was wasting my time sitting there, because I sure didn't feel any closer to enlightenment. In fact I felt further from it than ever; I felt plain miserable.
But I endured and sat with my back straight and my eyes downcast. The evening session consisted of two 45 minute rounds of zazen 坐禅 (meditation) with a 5 minute break in the middle. About 15 minutes into the sitting, one of the priest stood up, walked over the altar and picked up the keisaku (japanese link here), the Zen whoopin' stick! (What is it with Japanese people hitting their friends with sticks anyway?) The priest then walked in front of the 15 of us, and, when someone motioned to him, after bowing respectfully, he smacked the shit out of their back 6 times! This is an old Zen tradition and is not meant as a punishment, but rather as a means to bring the mind back into focus. The smack that stick made was so loud, like a hollow thunder clap.
I sure didn't want anything to do with it at the time, but in retrospect I kinda wished I had tried it. Maybe next time. I've never been smacked by a Zen master before.
After the sitting was finished I went downstairs with the two priests who were smacking that day and had a really long and interesting conversation about Zen in America and in Japan. When I told the priests I had practiced Zen at the Denver Zen Center before coming to Japan they were intrigued and wanted to know how the Japanese experience ranked. I told them there weren't any whoopin' sticks in Denver. They laughed long and hard.
The older of the priests, Mr. Domyo Kurihara said that Takuboku Center is a tough place to learn meditation because they sit for two 45 minute sessions with only a 5 minute break in the middle. He was sure right about that.
The hardest part about sitting still for so damn long is keeping your mind focused and your eyes open. Takuboku Center practices Rinzai Zen 臨済宗, one of two main schools of Zen that encourages its followers to focus the mind on the breath and Zen sayings, or koans, i.e. "What is sound of one hand clapping," while meditating. In Japanese this approach is called 一念一想, or focusing on one single thought. This form of meditation differs from Soto Zen 曹洞宗 which propagates a "no thought," 無念無想 approach to meditation.
As instructed, when the bell rang to start meditating I began counting my breaths. I got to 13 and started thinking about everything under the sun. It's crazy what little minute things pop into the mind when you try to calm it. For some reason I started thinking about the strongest and least intrusive way to hang pictures on drywall. What the hell? Where did that come from. Well, after I finally treed that squirrel and started back at 1, I'll be damned if I didn't get stuck at 8; this time thinking about how a mosquito could have a field day in here with all the sweaty lumps of flesh just waiting to be suckled.
When I explained my difficulties to Mr. Kurihara and Mr. Chijo Seko (pictured above) they said it was very natural that my mind wouldn't focus. It takes years to get good at Zen. Mr. Kurihara, who has been practicing Zen for over 40 years, said that sitting still and counting the breath is easy in theory but extremely difficult to do well in practice. I completely agree.
I recommend a little Zen meditation to everyone. If you live in Tokyo and would like to join Takubuko's Zen meetings you can check there website here (in Japanese). The center holds 1 1/2 hour zazen sittings on Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 6:30pm, Saturdays from 5pm, and Sunday mornings from 7. If you are new to practicing Zen, please arrive 15 to 20 minutes early so a priest can teach you how to meditate properly. There is a nominal charge of 100 yen ($1) to participate. All instruction is given in Japanese although Mr. Seko Chijo speaks really good English. The center is affiliated with the Japan wide Ningen Zen Group (English link).
I'd like to thank everyone at the Takuboku Zen Center for a great day of meditation, philosophical conversation, and an after hours tour of the center I'm not supposed to mention.
Top: Inside the Takuboku training hall. Middle: The coolest Zen man in Tokyo, Mr. Chijo Seko. Bottom: Outside view of Takuboku Zen Center.