A Touch of Zen at Xmas

December 14th, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

I  recently had the good fortune to be able to attend a Buddhist Centre retreat in the idyllic setting of the Somerset Hills.  Like many people, I have long been interested in Zen Buddhism without knowing that much about its practice – but I did know that meditation (or za-zen, from which it derives its name) is absolutely central to it. 

The actual meditation proved very difficult. The idea of ‘mindfulness’, where you not so much empty your thoughts as become very focused on the here and now, is not one that comes easily to me.  

I found myself being continually distracted by the soft smoky runs of the boiler igniting  its regular puffs of disbelief in the background, and by the distant catcalls of children playing in the garden, while we sat inside, in postures of graduated discomfort and in complete silence.   Hard to avoid the ticking clock in one’s head that counts down the days, the hours and the minutes, both in the past and the future, but never quite reaches the present tense.

The za-zen sessions lasted 25 minutes at a time – long enough for buttocks to go numb (like ballet, you have to start the lotus position young or you’ll never find it comfortable), but also to come out of the other side of the initial mental fidgeting and go into a sort of deep slow trance.  So much so that one point I start swaying and get gently admonished by the Zen teacher, the Sensai.  Quite rightly,  as what is being looked for is not a trance but attentiveness.  

The meditation sessions were spaced out by intervening walks around the garden — walks which are themselves part of Zen practice and are called kinhin.   I found this a fascinating principle, not least as I’ve been a long-distance walker all my life: the slow steady pace of a walk (particularly when following somebody else) can be uniquely helpful for clarifying thoughts and the brain.

Different styles of kinhin have developed in different places.  We walked in single file behind one another, with our hands held in what is called shashu (left hand closed in a fist, while the other hand grasps or covers the fist), and looks as if you are restraining yourself from punching the person in front.

The influential Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh seems to have made this practice very central to his teaching and has led peace walks in different places around the world. Thich Nhat Hanh is now exiled from Vietnam and based in France, where he has proposed an attractive form of ‘Engaged Buddhism’ that works within the community and counters the old criticism that it can be too self-centred.  His books on the idea of ‘mindfulness’ are succinct and helpful, which many others are not.

We each have a one-to-one session with our own Zen teacher.  When I tell him of my problems during the meditation sessions, he makes an analogy:  that it is like being at a drinks party and making sure you only talk to the one person, yourself, rather than being distracted by all the other noises and voices around you.  Which seems more and more relevant to the way we live now, given the sheer quantity of shash and background noise we all have to contend with.

 Thich Nhat Hanh in Paris in 2006          Thich Nhat Hanh

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