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Basics of Mikkyo Zen Meditation

Why I Practice Japanese Zen Meditation, and How It Could Benefit You Too

In short: Since I started to meditate I live a way more balanced life, and it is hard for me to get stressed out about anything. Is that a way of life you'd like to experience yourself?

It all started in 2011 on a family road trip to a remote island in British Columbia, Canada. From Vancouver it took 8 hours and three ferries to reach Cortes Island. There we met Miwa, a good friend from the time when we lived in Japan. Her husband is a doctor taking care of native Indians living on this island. Miwa is an ordained Mikkyō Zen priest. Mikkyō[1] is esoteric, Tantric Buddhism - it literally means secret teachings. By pure coincidence, the head priest from the temple in Japan came to visit her with his disciples when we were there. They performed a dance in a community hall for the locals. The priests mentioned that they plan to visit San Francisco in two weeks. We agreed to meet there again.

It turned out that they went to Hakone Gardens, a beautiful Japanese garden in Saratoga, 15 minutes from where we live. I got introduced to Koraku Sensei, a Buddhist priest living locally in the San Francisco Bay Area.

2011 was a difficult time period for me - my company went bankrupt, and we had trouble in the open source TWiki community I was leading. I got some advise from the head priest. From what I remember, his main point was to not worry. I thought thats easier said than done, but I was intrigued and was eager to learn how.

The group invited me to join their zen meditation class. It was a good way to center myself. I liked it so much that I decided to join the weekly zen meditation class, long after the head priest and his disciples left for Japan.

Let me describe a typical meditation session, happening in a traditional Japanese house at Hakone Gardens on Saturday mornings. The students sit in a row on the tatami (rice mat) floor. We face Koraku Sensei, the Mikkyō zen master. Sensei wears a beautiful black gown with minimal decoration. After a deep bow to greet each other, we chant for a few minutes. This is to purify the room, and to get us in sync with the universe, meaning with each other and surroundings.

Introduction to Zen Meditation by Yokoji Zen Mountain Center[2]

Then we are asked to turn around to meditate, facing the window. At the ring of a singing bowl we first exhale completely, then we start deep breathing cycles. You inhale through the nose to fill your lungs, then exhale slowly through the nose and mouth. You exhale about twice as long as you inhale.

The eyes are halfway closed, you gaze on the floor in front of you. You are fully aware of your surroundings - the breathing of fellow students, the sound of the waterfall, the sound of birds, the smell of the tatami. You are also fully aware of yourself, your breathing rhythm, your torso, your arms, your legs.

Inevitably, thoughts will come up, such as "did I close the garage door?", "I should call Mike", or "What should I prepare for dinner?". Let the thoughts come and go, don't follow up on them. How? Let's use an analogy. Imagine you are sitting in a train watching the scenery outside. You see a house - one of your thoughts. It's there. Now it's gone - your thought is gone. Then you see a cow on a pasture. Now she is gone. It is OK to have thoughts, just don't follow up on them. Being aware of yourself and the surroundings helps in slowing down your brain.

After a while you get into a meditative state - you become mindful, your mind is full. It will take a number of classes until you reach this state. When you are in a meditative state you are totally relaxed, you feel joy, fulfillment, and at the same time emptiness. You are empty of your chains, your constraints, your doubts, your fears.

Sensei is walking quietly behind the students. When he senses that a student is wandering off with his or her thoughts, he punts the student with a wooden stick called Kenshaku. This is to center the student. He punts you on the left shoulder if he senses that you think of something happening now, the right shoulder if you think about someone or something in the past, or your head if you think about the future.

The meditation session lasts for 20 minutes. It feels long, especially when you are new to meditation. The session ends at the ring of the singing bowl, where Sensei instructs the students to continue 3 breathing cycles, then to slowly turn around. I especially enjoy this phase, the last few moments of emptiness, when you slowly come back and are greeted by the sight of the Japanese garden outside the window. A deep feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment.

There are many forms of meditation, Zen is one of them. When you meditate you are in the flow, where nothing can go wrong. In a broad sense, there are other forms of meditation, like being in the flow while performing a sport, a hobby, or any activity you do with passion. For example, my mom was totally absorbed in her studio in a small village in the Swiss Alps when she was painting porcelain plaits and cups. When she painted in Meissen style she was in the flow, this was her way of meditation.

Repetition is the key to benefit from meditation. Do it regularly. It does not have to be daily, you can get positive results if you meditate at least once a week. Although it helps to be in a group, you can also mediate on your own. Sometimes I meditate in my mind for a minute or two while sitting at my desk at work.

Meditation works, research and statistics backs this up. Some schools in the USA switched from detention to meditation, with very positive results[3]. Misbehaving students are sent to the Mindful Moment Room to practice breathing exercises and to talk to a counselor.

Would you like to try zen meditation? I can wholeheartedly recommend it. It helped me find balance in my life. When a difficult situation arises I learned to be more analytical, and to not let emotions dictate my actions. Nowadays I can't get stressed, or at least it takes a lot to get me stressed about anything. I see this as the biggest benefit since I started with Zen meditation.

~ Peter Thoeny, Cupertino, California, USA

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mikky%C5%8D
[2]: https://zmc.org/
[3]: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-11-14/how-mindfulness-helps-urban-school-kids

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