Tuesday, November 17, 2009

My Buddhist Zazen (Seated Meditation) Experience at Daijoji Temple, Kanazawa

Anyone who knows me is aware that I can't sit still for one minute so going to practice zazen (seated meditation) for the day was always going to be a challenge...

The Kanazawa Ryokan (hotel) Association had been looking for eager volunteers to trial out a day excursion to one of the main temples of the Zen Soto sect, called Daijoji, to practice meditation. The day would include return travel, lunch, the zazen session followed by a talk with hot tea & cake, all for free. I jumped at the chance to take part (and no not because of the free cake)

I had recently read "Eat Sleep Sit: My Year at Japan's Most Rigorous Zen Temple" by Kaoru Nonomura about a 30 yr old Tokyo salary man who decides to leave the comfort of his contemporary lifestyle and put himself through the toughest physical and emotional limits in training to be monk at the head temple of the Zen Buddhist sect, Eiheiji. It was such a compelling read and great insight into the world of Zen Buddhism; their beliefs, their way of life and practices. This was a unique opportunity to see it with my own eyes.

Daijoji is actually just on the outskirts of Kanazawa. The temple was founded by zen master Tettsu Gikai about 700 years ago. What's interesting to note is that Tettsu practice under the guidance of Dogen, THE founder of Japanese Soto Zen Buddhism and was the 3rd Abbott of Eiheiji. Daijoji is also the third oldest temple in Japan after the two main temples of Eiheiji and Sojiji.

It was a cold, rainy and blustery mid November afternoon. After a 10 min walk through modern suburbia from our bus stop we walked up a long driveway to the temple. Soon we hit the two huge wooden temple gates of Daijoji, the primary gate (So-mon) and a further main gate guarded by the guardian Niōdeva kings who act as protectors against evil spirits.)

You would certainly not stumble upon Daijoji. Although on the fringes of the city, the temple is hidden away by a forest, grave stones and beautiful autumn foliage, it felt totally isolated.

We piled into a toasty warm tatami mat guest room (it was so cold outside and it was so kind for the monks to put the gas heater on- NB I’m discovering the Japanese are very hardy people rarely putting the heating on despite plummeting temperatures)

Hadyn, the Aussie training monk

Two monks had been waiting for our arrival, a native Japanese and to my utter shock a big bald Aussie called Hadyn (well obviously bald as all monks shave their heads but he definitely stood out more than the others)

We sat down to a quick sushi pack lunch and were given some leaflets as well as a freebie cotton bag.

Lunch was followed by a talk (in Japanese but was translated) by an older monk who covered elements of meditation including breathing technique and practice. We were shown the one hand position called GASSHO which is basically putting together so they make a V shape (exactly like the houses in Shirakawago are shaped- see my post about Shirakawago). This is an expression of respect, faith and devotion. See picture of Gassho hands below.

He told us not to try and control our thoughts during zazen, just to let them come up and go away freely. Concentrate on breathing and when this settles the mind will become tranquil. Easier said than done I guarantee, my mind is like Tokyo on pro plus at the best of times.

He also covered the Kanki-Issoku. This is a breathing technique, with your mouth slightly open make a deep exhalation expelling all the air out of your lungs and exhale from your abdomen. Then close your mouth and inhale through your nose.

He told us the eyes should remain slightly open, cast downward at a 45 degree angle and the hands should be in the cosmic mudra (hokkai-join) pose. See below.

So much to remember! I was getting nervous that I’d do it all wrong. After his talk, we all headed down the long dark wooden corridors of Daijoji to the zendo (the zen meditation hall) in anticipated silence. We had been allocated a spot just outside of the main hall. This was basically a waist high wooden elevated ledge with small velvet cushions lined up about a metre apart.

I chose a spot on the end (which I’m now thankful for since at least I’d only be seen wobbling about by one person to my right instead of being in between two people) We then stood in front of the elevated ledge in front of a cushion, we bowed once with hands in gassho form and then again facing outwards. The monk then demonstrated the really awkward looking backwards technique of sliding onto the ledge; right leg first goes up onto the ledge (whilst you’re facing away from the ledge) and then the other leg comes up. It’s not the easiest of moves especially since the ledge is pretty high, I’m certainly not the most flexible of people.

I sat in a half half lotus (I’ll call it) Not a full lotus but I had my legs crossed with one foot resting on my thigh but the other one was free. Typical that a seasoned professional sat next to me, legs in perfect lotus, back perfectly straight and no wobbling whatsoever (he was from India so I'll let him off). The session was split into two 30 minute meditation sessions with a 5 min break in the middle. The bell was struck 3 times to indicate the start of the first session. It was time to meditate!

So they did say to let the thoughts come and go and wow mine did in their hoards. Here is (in brief) what went through my mind in the first 5 minutes of meditation:

1) Wow there’s such a strong wind blowing out there its making the wooden partitions in this temple rattle so hard…
2) …that reminds me of the double lounge doors at home that rattle so badly and where a mini gale force wind blows through the gap in between them…
3) Oooh that fire at home, it’s so cold here I can feel my nose getting numb…to be in front of that lovely warm fire…
4) ..thinking of fire, if there was a fire place the temple would be burnt down in minutes…
5) CONCENTRATE ON BREATHING JESS, in, out, in out….and try a Kanki-Issoku?
6) Wow, I’m struggling to keep my eyes open, it’s so difficult focusing on one spot, I’ll think I’ll close them for a bit..
7) Ooh I think I’m wobbling, I’ve definitely started slouching, the Indian is still sat totally upright, I can see him out of the corner of my eye!
8) Aggggh the monk’s coming, I can see the shadow behind me, he’s probably seeing if anyone’s slouching, I’d better straighten up a bit..
9) I can hear what sounds like a mower or strimmer in the distance, someone cutting grass? Reminds me of the old days when I used to play at the village hall…
10) Oooh I’m so cold, nose is going numb…
11) Ouch my feet are starting to get sore and my coccyx is burning
12) I wonder how much time left?

As you can see, I really don’t have a mind apt for the practice of Buddhist zazen! It’d obviously take quite a few more sessions to reach inner calm. I wonder how many other volunteers had so many thoughts running through their heads?

After 30 minutes the bell was struck again indicating break time. Phew. During break we had a quick peak in the zendo hall which they explained was their eating and sleeping quarters. Each tatami mat (85.5cm wide and 179cm in length) had a wooden kanji name tag hanging above and represented a single living space. That towering Aussie monk MUST struggle! I suddenly really appreciated the luxury of my 23m sq pad back in Nishi Izumi.

Next 30 min zazen session. Less ridiculously distracting thoughts running through my mind this time so my mind must have calmed down a bit although I still struggled to keep my eyes open.

I did get distracted however for a second when I heard a loud smack of a what sounded like a ruler. I later found out that this was the “Kyosaku” or in English “the encouragement stick”, a stick that the monks use to give monks a blow on the shoulder during meditation to keep them alert. If you need to be struck by the kyosaku you must signal by putting the palms together in gassho. Thank god (or the Supreme Buddha?!) that wasn't me.

The bell is struck again and our zazen is over. We were instructed to sway our bodies forward and backwards and then unfold our dead legs gently and get up. I nearly fell over!

After plumping up the cushion and placing it in a certain way we had to put our hands in sanshu position and took half steps (kinhin) with each breath until we left the zendo.

We headed back to the toasty guest room for some serious thawing out and お茶 (O-cha) and cake. We discussed our experiences and I was so thankful that other volunteers also struggled to keep their eyes open and minds free of distracting thoughts.

Haydn explained a little bit about the different depths of meditation (beta/alpha/theta) and the science behind it. I don’t think I even hit alpha. He then opened up the Q&A. The strict training that Nonomura (Author of “Eat Sleep Sit”) had gone through during his Eiheji training had, at times, been so brutal that I wondered if it was the same here. So I asked. He told us it wasn’t although a lot of the practices are the same. They get up at 4am (Eihehji it was 3), their daily routines are similar and they have the same hierarchical type structure.

Their meals also sounded similar, breakfast consists of minimal portions of okayu (rice porridge), takuan (pickles) and condiments (such as roasted sesame and nori) For lunch, miso soup, vegetables and rice followed by the same for dinner. Haydn told us he lost 35kg (that’s about 5 stone) in 3 months! This guy must have been humongous when he arrived as he wasn't exactly small.

Haydn was a funny guy. He told us that for 6 months of the year there was a “lock down” period where trainee monks were forbidden to leave the temple grounds. However as he was learning Japanese he had special permission to leave the grounds for his Japanese classes and revealed that he had, on occasion, grabbed a pack of biccies from Lawsons on his way, hilarious!

I have so much more I could write but am fully aware that this blog post is turning into an epic novel of war & peace proportions. In summary, a fantastic experience for me. I can’t say I've experienced untold depths of inner peace but I’m happy that I got to see and experience Zen Buddhist zazen in one of the oldest temples in Japan as well as learn more about the faith.


  1. Hi Jessica!

    I'm Kozo Kawakami who publishes eye on KANAZAWA. Remember me?
    I'm enjoying your blog (or rather... epic novel?) Haha...
    Although for me it took time to read whole article, that was pretty fun! You seemed to enjoy the Zazen Experience. I'm so glad!
    I think your blog is very useful for tourists, so I want to link your blog to our website. Is that OK? Let me know if you are fine about it or not.

    Take care!
    Kozo Kawakami

  2. Hi Ms Kawakami
    Thanks so much for the opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed the experience (although I was not good at zazen) Yes of course you can put a link on your website, I will do the same. Just bear in mind it's only really a personal diary!

    Thanks and hopefully see you again soon.


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