Friday, November 27, 2009

Hit me with your religion stick

It's friday afternoon on my last day at school five of six, so you know what that means – it's blogging time! My social calendar has been and continues to be packed this week, so I've having to use my ample downtime at school to keep the blog posts coming.

For my last twenty minutes with each class, the English teacher here gave me free rein to do something fun. I've had them dancing the Gay Gordons and learning the lyrics to Edelweiss. It's been awesome. Also, I dazzled some teachers today by using Blu-Tack, which apparently doesn't exist here. They thought I was using chewing gum as an adhesive at first.

But, I promised last time to tell you about my thrashing at the hands of a Zen Master, so I shall stick to this remit. Tuesday and Wednesday last week I was at a JET training seminar (which was quite fortuitous, since my school was on swine flu lockdown at the time anyway). I picked up some good teaching tips, but as far as stories to tell go the highlight was undoubtedly the 'cultural activity' segment. For a bit of a break from the lectures, we got to try our hand at one of: taiko drumming, origami, sumie painting, or Zen meditation. I actually requested taiko but that session was oversubscribed so I got meditation. Maybe that was Buddha working in mysterious ways...

Having changed into casual clothes (I didn't really have a concept of what one wears to mediate, but I felt fairly sure it wasn't a suit) I went to the meditation room and took my place on one of the zabuton (square cushions) that had been laid out. Leading the session was a man who looked every bit the part of Buddhist priest: he had a shaved head, long black robes, a weird bib thing, and a permanently warm, patient expression on his face. Speaking through a slightly sketchy interpreter, he explained the pre-meditation rituals of bowing and holding ones hands in what looks to a Westerner like a prayer position. Given that making a cup of tea can be a highly ceremonial business in Japan, this rigmarole was not unexpected.

Then came the main event. He explained the correct seating posture, allowing all the gaijin (and most of the Japanese people there) to settle for the half-lotus position. I can actually get my legs into a full-lotus, but I suspected that the agony associated with such a pose would hamper my efforts to clear my mind. We had to hold our hands in a special way, and he explained that since it is very difficult for beginners to think about nothing, we should just focus our attention on our thumbtips touching together. Also – and I didn't know this before - meditation is performed facing the wall, so you aren't distracted by whatever is going on in the room. Ok, so far so good.

Then he produced a long, tapered wooden stick. He explained that he would hit us with it if we were losing concentration. There then followed a priceless few seconds where all the gaijin (myself included) thought he was joking, didn't hear the laugh they were expecting, then glanced around the room anxiously. “This stick is not for punishment” he assured us (via the interpreter), “it's for encouragement”. Presumably he uses a carrot for punishment.

To our considerable relief, he explained that he would only hit us with our consent. With the help of a model, he demonstrated the protocol. To request a beating, the model raised his hands into a prayer position. The Zen Master then approached him from behind (since he was facing the wall) and tapped him on the right shoulder to warn him that the smackdown was imminent. At this point, he advised us to lean our heads to the left, to avoid a painful ear-clip. He then swept down with surprising speed, and connected with the guy's shoulder with an impressive slap that seemed to echo around the room. Cue a sharp intake of breath and more anxious glances from the audience.

Introduction over, he started the zazen (literally, sitting Zen) session with three rings of a bell. I'd never tried to mediate before. How exactly was I supposed to think of nothing? I'm a pretty highly-strung kind of guy; it often takes upwards of an hour for my mind to quieten down enough to allow me to sleep. I started furiously thinking about not thinking, then thinking about that, and soon lost count of just how meta I was being.

While I was failing to find any inner peace whatsoever, some of the more plucky among us had already to started to request a Zen-lamping, the resounding cracks of which were further distracting me from realising my true Buddha-nature. I started to wonder whether I should request a swatting. Probably yes, I thought: how often would I be in this position? But then I wondered if it was somehow disrespectful to request a holy chibbing just for shits and giggles. The man was a Zen Master – maybe he would know I wasn't taking it seriously. Maybe I should wait until I was actually losing focus. But wait, maybe I am losing focus now, I thought. But I never had focus in the first place. Does that count? (This kind of internal turmoil is the reason why I should never do drugs.)

In the end, I decided that worrying about whether to get hit with the stick was, in itself, preventing me from meditating properly. I identified that the only way to solve this problem was to get it over with. So I put my hands up. The tap came, I got my head out of my way, and I felt the kiss of the Stick of Zen (it's not really called that). It was certainly more than a tap. It stung for a good few seconds after the Master had shuffled over to his next target. His life must be like a kind of spiritual Whac-a-Mole. But it wasn't excruciatingly painful, and with that done, I could get down to some serious meditation.

For a while my over-analysing, skeptical nature prevented me from getting into it, in much the same way that it does during romantic comedies, and for that matter, romances. But I realised after a while that since there was no getting out of it, I may as well make an earnest effort to meditate rather than just sit there smugly resisting like some insufferable Richard Dawkins wannabe. So I went for it.

One keeps their eyes open but lowered during zazen. Have you ever tried keeping your eyes still, not looking at anything in particular, for several minutes at a time? I hadn't. Because the brain works by detecting changes (please back up that profound oversimplification, fellow neuroscientists), if you give it a constant stimulus for a while it starts to do weird things. I began to see patterns, like when you rub your closed eyes too hard. After a while, I couldn't really see anything. I wasn't blind; I was aware my eyes were open, but I just wasn't really paying attention to the information coming from them. This is starting to sound quite Zen, isn't it? I hasten to add that I don't think there is anything mystical about this, it's just an interesting thing that you're not used to doing. It's tricky though. Just like lucid dreaming or nailing a guitar solo on 'Expert', it's one of these things where the mere act of noticing that you're doing it can be enough to break your concentration.

Just as I was surprising myself with my apparent Zen proficiency, the Master rang the bell for the end of the session. It turns out this whole mental voyage had only taken 15 minutes; if he had told me it had been twice that I would have believed him. We then did some walking meditation which seemed a bit goofy but was good for getting the circulation in my legs going again. We finished up with another ten minutes of zazen. At first I was struggling to clear my mind; I think I was trying too hard to recapture what I perceived to be my former success. So I requested the stick. I think this time I actually saw the point of it. The sudden jolt of physical pain helps to snap you out of whatever mental loop you're stuck in, and draw a line under it. When I ceremonially bowed to thank him for the thwacking, I did it with some sincerity this time. Leaving the session, I felt very calm, just like waking from a particularly pleasant sleep.

There was a book exchange at the seminar, and before any of this had happened I had bagged a book called Hardcore Zen, just because I thought the title was amusing. I have since read it all, and found it very interesting. I won't go on about it here because a) this post is really long, b) I'm worried I might be freaking some of you out with this uncharacteristic spirituality and c) I'd probably just make an ass of myself talking about Zen having read one book. I'll just say this: It appears to me that Zen is entirely compatible with atheism. While most religions exalt faith and seek to suppress questioning, Zen practitioners are actively encouraged to question everything, including their conception of reality. That appeals to me.

At the weekend I did some zazen in the comfort of my own home. I'd like to keep that up for a while just as a kind of experiment. You're advised to do it every day, but I've found that difficult because quite a large proportion of my job is sitting around not doing very much, so the last thing I want to do in my own time is gaze quietly at a wall.

If I achieve enlightenment anytime soon you'll be the first to know.


  1. I need some Zen. I've got the PhD blues right down to my shoes.

  2. I feel ya. You'll remember the look of dejection permanently on my face this time last year. Keep your pecker up; the night is darkest just before the dawn.

  3. Adrianna - stop talking and start writing. It's time to get down to work. No excuses. It's tedious to hear you complain.

    Consider this the equivalent of being whacked with a me(n)tal stick.