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After beginning in India and travelling through China, Zen became well known across Japan in the Kamakura period. Although Zen was originally intended as a way to help one find one’s true self, in today’s society, Zen has become a popular method to train one’s spirit, improve concentration, and relieve stress.

Zen evangelists can be found not only in Japan but also all over the world

It must be very strange to Japanese people when they hear that it’s become very popular for American IT start-ups to implement Zen teachings in their offices. When Japanese people think of Zen, they no doubt imagine a monk and Japanese tea in a tatami room inside a temple. However, most Japanese today are passive atheists who don’t really no much about Zen teachings.

Recently, many young Japanese people have begun practicing Zen meditation. If you think about it, because the world has become so connected, it’s easy to see that many people from different countries encounter the same problems. Society is being overflown with information at an incredible speed, which has lead to larger income gaps, an increase of unemployment, and the collapse of families and communities. The Japanese proverb “a drowning man grasping at straw” could be how many people around the world feel while looking to Zen for relief.

In this article, I would like to take a closer look at what Zen is by discussing the topic with Shinsuke Hosokawa, a temple master at Ryuun-ji located in Tokyo’s Setagaya district.

Zen is a method to help one find oneself

Hosokawa says the main purpose of Zen is to search for oneself. “In Zen teachings, there is no God to save you. You must save yourself.” In order to do so, one must reach the spiritual staircase known as enlightenment by achieving a certain mental state through Zen meditation. This is very difficult to explain with words because it is known as a non-verbal physical state of being. “For example, let’s say you just ate something incredibly delicious. How would you explain this experience to someone else? Words can only do so much. The only way to effectively portray the feeling is to have the other person physically taste the food. Meditation is similar, so it’s best to just sit down and meditate instead of trying to explain it through words.”

Of course, there have been many books released discussing Zen, and with the help of temple master Taido Matsubara, the cultural practice to put Zen teachings into words really picked up in the 1970’s. However, Zen is about “spiritual awakening”, meaning it is believed that the only true way to teach Zen is through experience, not words. One thing you must not forget is that Zen, a non-verbal practice, is different than meditation. Although they are often used to describe each other and indeed have certain aspects in common, they should be thought of as different things. Meditation is useful for bringing out one’s “automatic” self. Through meditation, the subconscious self can be known which can lead to the realization of what one truly wants to achieve. Inside oneself exists a self that is different from the outside world.

But for Zen, the ultimate goal is to achieve spiritual awakening. Ideally, reaching spiritual awakening means one becomes “empty”. At this point, there is no consciousness or unconsciousness, no difference between oneself and the world around, nor any difference between males and females. “A clear mirror reflects whatever is in front of it perfectly. A tangerine is a tangerine. Trash is trash. Mirrors reflect the world around one as is. Zen is about achieving a level of focus to see the world around oneself in the same way. If you can find this mirror, you’ll be able to find your true self.”

The Zen lifestyle is looking at the world as it is and not thinking about it with any human understanding. It’s important to focus on the world in front of your eyes in every moment, without thinking about pros and cons, likes and dislikes, past and future, or cause and effect. Just like an infant seeing the world for the first time, “it’s about being able to view something with a sense of wonder, no matter how many times you may have seen it before. If you can achieve this, you will be able to lead a life that focuses on the world in front of your eyes. Of course, this isn’t a simple thing to achieve.” Zen has created physical techniques to help reach this goal. Here, I’ll go into detail about two of those techniques.

First is breathing. By focusing and counting each breath, eventually one will completely forget about counting. At this moment, one is truly “empty”. Another technique is posture. In Zen, the way one can sit is highly specific. This is because it is believed that one’s conscience can change depending on the posture. Although this is widely understood by Japanese people, for westerners who often think of the mind and body as separate entities, this is a unique ideal. For example, at Antai-ji located in Hiroshima, there is a German-born monk named Nölke Muho, and when he first started his training he didn’t think one’s posture was related to one’s consciousness. However, after his experience with meditation, he realized that he was mistaken. In his book, he writes:

“’I am the one who is breathing, the one who’s heart is beating. I am every single cell located in my body, and I am connected to the birds singing outside the window.’ By meditating, I achieved the realization that I am every part of my body. ‘By changing my posture, I can completely transform myself!’

This was a revelation.”()Although Zen is difficult to describe in words, it can be portrayed through visuals. These are called Zen paintings. In particular, Ten Bulls (Japanese: Jyugyuzu) is famous all over the world for the way the artist interpreted his progression towards enlightenment over 10 images. () Quotation from Nölke Muho’s “Japanese Do Not Need ‘Religion’” (KK Best Sellers Publishing)

Opening up the entrance to Zen

As we go into depth about Zen, many people may want to think of it as a type of thinking or philosophy instead of a religion, but in reality, Zen is most definitely an aspect of Buddhism. Buddha created Buddhism in India at around the year 500 BC. This spread over Asia, into China, Korea, and then Japan. The patriarch for Zen Buddhism in China was Bodhidharma. 

It is said that Eisai spread Zen Buddhism to Japan after his trip abroad to China, but the religion was seen in Japan during the Asuka period. Eisai created the Rinzai School of Buddhism, and although its presence faded, Hakuin Ekaku reinvigorated it in the middle of the Edo period. “This man was known to be incredibly avant-garde. In today’s world, he is someone who would have propagandized the religion using cheap CG and rap music. Although he was greatly frowned upon by the Buddhist religion at the time, it is because of him that we have Zen today.”

One of the other main sources for Zen Buddhism besides the Rinzai school is the Soto school of Buddhism, started by Dogen. Dogen also studied in China. Although both Rinzai and Soto schools teach about reaching enlightenment through Zen meditation, they have specific differences. For example, with Rinzai Buddhism, they use a method called “Koan”, where one focuses on inner questions, but with Soto Buddhism, the road to enlightenment is through “Shikantaza”, where one focuses on the act of sitting and only sitting. In addition, today there is also the Obaku school of Zen Buddhism. Ryuun-ji, where Hosokawa is located, is part of the Rinzai Buddhist temple complex at Myoshin-ji, and is an ancient temple that was built in 1699 (12th year of the Ganroku era).

“You can say there is a Zen boom right now. One of the main reasons for this is the influence of Steve Jobs, who was well known for his belief in Zen Buddhism. The temple I belong to has been holding open meditation gatherings every Sunday morning for the past 40 years, and in the beginning few people would ever come. Now, about 100 people come every week. It’s probably become popular because we allow people to join and leave the meditation group whenever they please.”

As a way to get people more involved in Zen, The Myoshin-ji Rinzai Buddhist temple complex created “The Tokyo Zen Center” in 2005 near Tokyo’s Ryuun-ji. Here, visitors are able to practice Zen meditation in carpeted rooms instead of tatami. The basic program starts with an explanation about Zen meditation, after which visitors will participate in 3 sets of 15-minute meditation sessions, and finish with a tea ceremony (which consists of drinking tea and eating snacks). “More than anything we want people to experience Zen meditation first hand, and if they become interested in it and want to learn more, we hope they will join our Zen meditation groups.” Foreign exchange students and company interns often visit these sessions. “After visiting Zen temples as tourists, many foreign exchange students and company interns grow interested in Zen Buddhism and want to experience Zen meditation. Although in most situations, this is just a way for people to experience a different culture, every now and then somebody feels a true connection with Zen Buddhism and goes on to join in Zen training.”

Japanese Buddhism has grown from land rooted in generosity

Hosokawa believes that one can find the road to Zen from anywhere. “Just like there are many ways to the top of Mt. Fuji, I believe people can find Zen Buddhism in whatever way fits themselves. It could be from visiting a temple, eating Japanese food, practicing meditation, or just idolizing Steve Jobs. If people have the chance, I hope they come and experience Zen Buddhism for themselves.” This type of open thinking is one of the beautiful aspects of not only Zen Buddhism, but also Japanese Buddhism in general. Nölke Muho says this is because of Japanese people’s open-mindedness and generosity towards religion, which comes the fact that Japanese people do not deny other religions or show prejudice to people who follow other religions.

To put it in other words, Japan is a country that isn’t founded on “fundamentalism”. There are various reasons for this, but ultimately Japanese people don’t place importance on logical consistency or justice. In a negative sense, this leads to ambiguity, a lack of self-consistency, and a weakness in foreign relations. 

On the other hand, this leads to kindness towards others and a greater ability to live together with people from different cultures and religions. Regardless of religion, it is a well-known fact that most terrorists are fundamentalists who come from religious backgrounds, be it Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or any other belief. These terrorists sacrifice others for the sake of their belief. But most Japanese people prefer an ambiguous relationship with religion instead of strict dedication. Zen Buddhism has been able to grow as a religion because its ideals were able to spread across Japan. This is why learning about Zen is another way to learn about Japan.

Hosokawa says, “If you ever experience Zen meditation, I hope you continue to practice meditation everyday, even for just 5 minutes. Of course by practicing Zen meditation your concentration ability will improve, you can relieve stress, and your everyday life will get better, but I really hope you will be able to find your true self by taking a deep look within.” By learning the correct way to meditate, you will be able to find your true self. Doesn’t that sound like a good thing?

The correct method for Zen meditation

There are 3 important aspects of Zen meditation: the body, breathing, and the mind.

Kekka Fuza
Hanka Fuza

[Choh-shin] First, adjust your posture

  • Once you reach your seat (a floor pillow), place your right foot over your left thigh. Then place your left foot on your right thigh. This is called “Kekka Fuza”. For people who aren’t able to sit this way, only putting your right foot on your left thigh is fine. This way of sitting is called “Hanka Fuza”.

  • Next, put your hands together. The most typical hand formation for Zen meditation is called “Hokkai Johin”. To make this, place your right hand over your folded legs with your palm up, and then place your left hand, palm up, on your right hand. Then place each thumb as close as possible to each other without touching. Move your hands to the bottom of your stomach and move your elbows slightly away from your body. Next, relax your shoulders and body. *It is also possible to put your left hand on the bottom.

  • Move your body forward, backward, and side-to-side to find your center of gravity. Once you’ve found your center, straighten your back so the top half of your body stands straight up. Straighten your neck and pull your chin down.

  • Focus your vision about 1.5 meters in front of you and stare. By doing this, you will release tension from your eyelids, naturally leaving your eyes half open.

  • Relax your shoulders and straighten your back. Place your tongue on your upper jaw and move your lips so they barely touch your front teeth.

[Choh-soku] Next, adjust your breathing

  • Zen meditation requires you to breathe with your abdomen.

  • Breathe as if you are slowly releasing all of the air from your body. Once you have finished exhaling, quietly breathe in. Use your abdomen as necessary and slowly adjust your breathing. It is important to exhale slowly, quietly, and for a long time. If you can relax and imagine every pore in your body breathing simultaneously, you should be able to find the ideal breathing pattern.

[Choh-shin] Finally, adjust your mind

  • Once you have perfected your posture and breathing, you can adjust your mind. At first, don’t try and reach a state of freedom from all thoughts but instead focus your mind so you can reach a physically comfortable state of being. You can also count to yourself while you breathe, starting from 1 and counting to 10, then count backwards and keep repeating.

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