A Visit to a Zen Temple

Half an hour from Tokyo, in the suburb of Tsurumi, is a wooded hill on which stands the Zen monastery of Sojiji. It is the headquarters of the Soto branch of the Zen sect of Buddhism, and has numbered some famous Zen masters among its Abbots.  The Soto branch is some what larger than the other branch, the Rinzai.    The masters of Soto and Rinzai agree on fundamental principles, and both of them are lineal descendants of the Zen brought to China by Bodhidharma in the 7th century.    Both of them trace their spiritual pedigree back to Hui-neng, the famous Sixth Patriarch, and from him through Bodhidharma to Buddha himself.    The basis of the Zen instruction is the transmission “ from heart to heart “ of the spiritual realization of Reality.

The basic tenet is: ” To know one’s real nature is to be Buddha.”

The main difference between the two branches is that the Soto masters stress the importance of sitting in meditation as a means to enlightenment ; the Rinzai-though they too of course sit in meditation, also emphasize the usefulness of wrestling with certain philosophical conundrums, often paradoxical in nature. The conundrums are technically called Wadai or Koan, and are a comparatively late development in the history of Zen.    

Some extremists have even desired to dispense with everything except the Koan, but their view has not generally been accepted. On the other hand Dogen, one of the greatest names in Japanese Zen Buddhism, is not much in favour of using them. He says that the riddle to be solved is the riddle of life itself, and that the use of artificially constructed conundrums is a long way round.    (For the benefit of the English reader, a good book on the Soto standpoint is The Religion of the Samurai by Nukariya, which is one of the best books on Zen in English ; the works of Dr. Suzuki are from the Rinzai standpoint.)

In 1917, Dr. Shastri visited the Sojiji Temple where he knew the Abbot at that time, a famous Zen master. The present writer went two or three times in 1940, finding the monastery as Dr. Shastri had described it, and made another visit in October 1953. The present Abbot was away, but I had an introduction to the Head Monk, who consented to explain something about their Zen teachings. The monk is tall for a Japanese, and speaks tersely and to the point, without using any of the numerous interjections which punctuate most Japanese sentences.  He showed me the Zendo, a very large and bare hall, in which the monks eat, sleep and meditate.    Each monk has his place, a mat six foot by three, all he has for a home.    He has one tiny cupboard for his personal belongings. He told me that the discipline is severe, and that an individual would find it hard to keep up on his own.  ” But the power of a group is far greater than the mere sum of the individuals, and working in a group, it can be done.”

The programme for novices in the monastery is roughly as follows : They get up at 3.3o a.m., and the first meditation period is from 4 to 5.3o. Then they take some exercise and begin their studies. Breakfast at about 9, and then more classes. The afternoon is for recreation, and in the evening they have a light meal, and then another hour and a half of meditation. They retire at 9 p.m. The novices are in fact working for their degree in Buddhist philosophy, and attached to the temple is a big university-some distance off, where there are some very famous Buddhist scholars. The monks themselves do not attach overmuch importance to learning as a means to Enlightenment.

This branch of the Zen sect lays the greatest stress on  the meditation practice.    They sit in meditation in the posture of the Buddhas, each foot laid on the opposite thigh. However, the posture is by no means an essential ; if it were, as they point out, a legless man would be barred from Enlightenment.    What is essential is that the posture should be one which can be maintained for a long time without effort, and experience has shown that the spine should be straight.  There is no fixed rule about the eyes, but experience has taught that easiest is to allow the eyes to rest at a point on the ground at a distance roughly equal to the height of the seated figure.

The monk sits calmly, and then simply watches the thoughts rise and fall, without clutching at them. Either to follow them, or to reject them is a form of ” clutching “. The ideal is to be like a mirror, in which changing objects are reflected without adhering to it. If the objects do not “stick” to the mirror, they naturally pass away in the course of time.    They are replaced by new ones, but experience shows that in time, after long practice, no thoughts will arise.    What then ?    The real Self is realized, which is freedom, consciousness and peace. All the instruments of body and mind are known to be illusions which have appeared in that Self, as does the whole universe of time and space.

As an illustration, they hold up a hand, fingers extended. Suppose now that each finger has its separate consciousness. The fingers can work together, say to lift a teacup, by agreement, but such agreement is temporary and liable to distuption. Most of the time the fingers work against each other. (The monk now covers the palm and the base of the fingers with a cloth, so that the fingers appear quite separate.)  This is the position of the ordinary man ; the instruments of his mind and body, and the things of the universe, seem quite separate and distinct. 
(Now the monk moves the cloth to cover the fingers but reveal the palm.)
The process of meditation is to withdraw the consciousness from the fingers and to realize the palm of the hand, which is the true Self in which the fingers are rooted. Here consciousness is One, there is no separation or distinction. It is after continued and regular practice that the consciousness is withdrawn from body and mind-the fingers-into the Self, the palm.

Now the Self is realized.    
What is the life of the enlightened man ?
(The monk takes away the cloth altogether.)

The enlightened man does not remain in meditation.  Again he is conscious of the fingers, but this time the consciousness is of the whole hand as a unity ; there is no separate consciousness of the fingers.    The whole hand works together and because there is no opposition within itself (as there was when the fingers each had their consciousness of separation and the palm was unknown-although even then it was always there, supporting the fingers) the action is perfectly free. The enlightened man realizes the Self as the Self of all, and his action is universal.
Unenlightened people see his actions as similar to those of other people. (The monk again lifts the teacup.) The unenlightened man’s fingers have to agree among themselves to lift it, and even if they do, there may still be some opposition. But the enlightened man’s whole hand, fingers and all, move smoothly to lift the cup, and the fingers work together unconsciously with the whole hand. They are not conscious of playing separate parts.

The monk explained that if a man simply meditates, either in the formal position or in his daily activity, and gives up all thoughts of distinction and acceptance and rejection, he naturally realizes the Self. This Self is already within him, and he must not think he has to obtain it from somewhere outside. In the meditation he is not seeking anything ; he already has it.    If he can understand this without any doubt, he will be enlightened.

Those people who are full of doubts and queries are sometimes given philosophical riddles to solve, because they cannot give up all at once the bubbling activity of their mind. The purpose, however, is to lead to the pure meditation of the realization of the Self. Beginners who cannot concentrate at all are told to sit still and count their breaths, One to Ten, and then back to One again. He said that few of them can remember even to do this ; some thought or other distracts them, and they forget, and go on counting to Thirty or Forty before they recall what they are supposed to be doing.    As their distraction is reduced by daily practice they can estimate their progress by the lessening of the times they find themselves going past Ten.

I asked the monk how long a meditation he recommended for people in the world. He said that it is of course up to each individual, but they should only do what they can keep up.    People who begin with an ambitious programme of long meditations rarely sustain it. He thought that half an hour morning and evening was reasonable for most people who were serious in their intentions.

There were sometimes internal reactions against the intention to pursue meditation and a spiritual life, but if the meditation is -carried out sincerely, the obstacles would all be overcome.
Along with the meditation, it was necessary to practise extreme detachment from the things of the world. It was not necessary for a man to avoid wealth, for instance, but if it left him, he must be able to let it go without any feeling of regret. While he had it, he must have no feeling of superiority.

As an instance he pointed out that though the monks spend their days in quarters of Spartan simplicity, with coarse food and sometimes threadbare clothing, on the occasions of the ceremonies they sometimes wear beautifully embroidered robes which sparkle with gold and silver -presented by devout worshippers at the temple. The monk who wears these robes knows that it is only for a short time, and he knows they are not his. When the time comes he takes them off without any regret at all, and to-morrow when he sees another wearing them he has no envy for him. He does not feel a great man when he is wearing them, nor does he feel less when the time comes for him to take them off. He knows that the real man is naked, and that the clothes are only temporarily assumed. In the same way the monk must realize that the real Self is naked, and that all learning, brilliant intellect, health, wealth and so on, are only trappings, which have nothing to do with his real Self.

His second point for everyday life was that the Zen practitioner must perform every action with the whole man. He must live in the present here-and-now and do what is to be done here and now with his whole personality. When eating food he should simply eat it as it is, and not be hankering after better food, hoping for another dish tomorrow, or comparing it with something he had yesterday. When getting on a tram he must get on it without worrying about the end of his journey or wishing he were home resting.    

He must realize the Self in all his activities, and realize completeness in them. He is incomplete if he drags in hopes or fears or memories.    His Self is complete whereever he is and he must not clutch at other thoughts of repairing some fancied deficiency. It is wrong to think there is only Peace at the end of the path. There is Peace during the practice of the methods, and there is Peace also in the state of illusion.    Peace must be realized now. The Zen is not a way of seeking anything : nothing is lacking. The meditation is already the world of Buddha, and it is only necessary to realize that there is nothing lacking, that all is complete in the Self.    He said that when we can simply eat, or get on a tram, and make no comparisons, acceptances, hopes or rejections in the mind, but realize Completeness then and there, that is Enlightenment. Both the enlighened and the deluded taste sugar and know that it is sweet, but the deluded is thinking of getting something yet sweeter, and fears losing the present sweetness. The enlightened just knows that it is sweet.

The monk courteously came to the temple door to see me off. I wanted to make a small donation to the temple funds, but he would not hear of it. I said that Dr. Shastri our Teacher, had told us that on receiving spiritual instruction it was proper to make a small offering, not necessarily that the temple was in need, but for the sake of the donor himself. He laughed and said :  ” You understand the point very well.”

It is a ten-minute walk down the hill past the ancient trees, through darkness lit here and there by lamps burning in great stone lanterns, until suddenly one comes to a street leading to the railway station, with its fast electric trains back to the brightly lit streets of Tokyo.
T.L.

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