Friday, June 04, 2010

on Zen meditation

I've been writing far more substantive material in emails to different friends than I have on this blog, and since a recent email on Zen meditation turned out pretty well (I must have been fully awake when I wrote it), I've decided to reproduce it, with minor edits for clarity and privacy, here.

Before I do, I'd like to note a weird piece of trivia. People familiar with Korean Buddhism know that Seon (Zen) meditation is referred to as ch'am-seon, or "참선," in Hangeul. People in the West who are familiar with Japanese Zen will know the term zazen, which is the term used by practitioners of Japanese Zen when referring to seated meditation. A person who is somewhat familiar with both traditions might assume that ch'am-seon and zazen come from the same Chinese characters, but are pronounced differently in Korea and Japan, respectively. They would be wrong.

Ch'am-seon is rendered as "參禪" in hanja (Sino-Korean characters), whereas zazen is rendered as "坐禅" in kanji (Sino-Japanese characters). The kanji "禅" (Zen) is a more modern, short form of the hanja "禪" (Seon), so these are basically the same character. The hanja "參" (ch'am), however, is not the same as the kanji "坐" (za). Ch'am means "participate," whereas za means "sit," "sitting," or "seated." Zazen is thus seated meditation; in the Korean context, the characters "坐禪," pronounced jwa-seon (and written as "좌선") on the peninsula, refer not specifically to Seon meditation, but more generally to seated meditation of all types. The Korean hanja rendering offers us a somewhat different concept: that of participative or engaged meditation.

This isn't to say that Korean ch'am-seon and Japanese zazen are worlds apart in practice. In fact, I'd argue that the two expressions are merely different labels for the same activity.

Enjoy the following essay, which was written (in two separate emails—combined here) for a friend who is considering trying some seated meditation in the Zen/Seon style.





I've found Zen meditation, from the first time I ever tried it in 2000, to be positively medicinal. And I don't know why I don't keep up with it, because it's an activity I thoroughly enjoy, which doesn't take a lot of time out of my day. All one needs is five or ten minutes—the time to listen to a couple pop songs or a single classical movement—to start experiencing benefits. And when meditation is done at the beginning of the day, right as you're waking up, it's a bit like picking up a set of wind chimes that had lain jumbled on the floor: once suspended, the chimes sort themselves out into their proper, organized shape, performing their function well. The benefits of meditation work in a top-down way, orienting your day in the same way that the hand suspends the wind chimes. You end up more poised, less grouchy, more perceptive of others' needs and of the cosmos around you. Nothing magical, of course; life just becomes more... well, proper, I guess.

Although it's possible to start on your own after reading up on the practical aspects of zazen, I'd highly, highly recommend finding someone local who already does it, and learning proper posture and mindset from them. In my case, I was lucky to have some Buddhist relatives teach me basic posture in Korea. After that, I simply plunged into ch'am-seon (pronounced "cham-sun," with the "a" sounding like "ah"; this is the Korean expression for seated Zen meditation): in 2000, I visited a Korean Seon temple in Germantown, Maryland, took off my shoes in the basement, walked quietly upstairs to the main dharma hall (the temple was actually a huge, converted house), bowed to the Buddha statue while standing at the threshold, plopped myself on a cushion at the beginning of the session, and then sat the entire two hours: three 40-minute ch'am-seon sessions interrupted by two 3-minute periods of walking meditation.

It went swimmingly. As it turned out, I took to meditation right away (beginner's luck?), and never suffered truly major difficulties, but this wasn't the case for two of my fellow Catholic University grad-school classmates. One, a very athletic Korean girl, couldn't keep still for the two hours. The other, a tall, spindly white guy, ended up in agony because he wasn't used to the posture. So I offer that as a caution to you, before you attempt any ch'am-seon practice: Buddhists say that religious practices are like medicine—just as you don't use the same medicine for all your different ailments, you can't view meditation as a cure-all. It may work for you; it may not. It may turn out to be something that you can eventually do, given enough practice, or it may turn out that you and meditation will never get along. So be it.

Posture will probably be the only potential hurdle for you since I don't doubt your powers of concentration or your self-discipline when it comes to mental focus or mental stillness. Luckily, Seon/Zen offers a variety of postures, including sitting quietly in a chair. I found an excellent essay on zazen posture online, and I offer the link for your perusal:

Zazen Posture (Josho Pat Phelan)

As much as I like the Zen teacher's essay, I'm not entirely happy with some of her phraseology. Example:

"Actually, there is no other goal in Zen practice but to engage with the actuality of your being as it arises, moment by moment."

This sounds a little too New Age-y to me, though to her credit, Josho Pat Phelan does clarify what she means one or two sentences later. Master Shin, at the Germantown temple, put it this way: "When you meditate, your mind has no address." His English isn't very good, so he's forced to use simple metaphors to make his points, and I particularly like the way he phrased this. "Your mind has no address" means, as you probably already caught, that your mind should be nowhere in particular. You're not trying to force a certain thing to happen or to focus on a single object of consciousness (as in one-pointed mind meditation). Rather, think of your mind as being like a cork bobbing effortlessly on the surface of the ocean: as the waves pass under the cork, the cork merely bobs along, unharmed by the waves because it moves right with them.

This type of meditation is about a kind of stoppage, and here my favorite analogy is that of the glass jar full of muddy water. According to this analogy, a student is given a transparent glass jar of muddy water, which has a stick in it. The student is commanded to make the water clear. Seeing the stick, the student tries stirring the water, but the more he stirs, the more futile his efforts seem, because the water remains as muddy as ever. The student stops in order to reconsider his strategy. But in stopping the stirring, the student realizes that, as the water stills itself, the mud is settling of its own accord, until eventually the water is clear, and the mud lies on the bottom. Ha ha! All that was needed was to stop, and the rest followed! I like this metaphor, because we can see that the mud, which represents the buzz of our thoughts and the burden of our problems, doesn't disappear. Instead, the mud is now relegated to its proper place—at the bottom of the jar. Clarity dominates, and it all happened just... by... doing... nothing. Zazen, then, is a disciplined form of Doing Nothing, a concentrated example of the Taoist concept of wu wei, or so-called not-doing. Practice stillness, and your mind settles (samadhi: settling, concentration, absorption) of its own accord.

Another way to think about meditation is to consider the analogy of "mirror-mind." The idea here is that, in proper meditation, the mind is like a mirror: it reflects everything but possesses nothing. If something red steps in front of the mirror, the mirror shows red. When the red thing departs, the mirror no longer shows red. In the same way, our mind shouldn't grasp anything: if a bird chirps, then the oscillograph of our brain should wiggle with the sound of the bird, but once the bird stops chirping, the mind should return to its tranquil state. If anger suddenly flows through you, then let it flow: don't hold on to it, and don't try to repress it. As you can guess, this state of mind is meant to apply to more than when you're seated on the cushion: it should apply to your daily existence. How easy it is to get caught up in our own anger and pettiness when what we really need to do, for our own sake and for the sake of others, is to let go.

That's a lot of analogies I've dumped on you: wind chimes, no-address, mirror, and jar of muddy water. Sorry about that, but I hope the point is clear: this type of meditation isn't about separation from the outer world, nor is it about ruthless focus on a single, discrete object of consciousness; it's about the mind being nowhere in particular, reacting when there's something to react to, but always returning to a calm, open, dynamic-yet-poised state. The end result is, I think, a more organized and fruitful day, especially when zazen/ch'am-seon is done in the morning.

Coming back now to what Josho Pat Phelan wrote in the above-linked essay: the phrase "engage with the actuality of your being as it arises, moment by moment" ought to make a bit more sense after everything I've written here. Zen isn't about sitting there on the cushion and planning your shopping list, nor is it about obsessively chewing over last night's shouting match with someone. Your orientation is moment-by-moment, from now to now. The Chinese character for "mindfulness" (念) is, in fact, a combination of the character for "now" (今, geum) and the character for "mind/heart" (心, shim). To be mindful is to be fully present, to have now-mind. And paradoxically, to be fully present is to have no address.

Again, I can't guarantee that your own initial experience with zazen will be as surprisingly pleasant as mine was, but I have a feeling that, because you're already of a contemplative bent (and why the hell are Protestants in general so afraid of incorporating contemplative elements into their liturgies?), zazen will be something you enjoy. As I mentioned earlier, I'd recommend that you find someone who can teach you the basics. If not, a Google search on "how to do zazen" will yield a trove of links, including videos that demonstrate proper technique.

Two final remarks, the first of which I'm stealing from Korean Seon Master Seung Sahn.

1. In the book The Compass of Zen, the story is told of a Korean man who was a lay member of Seung Sahn's temple. He assiduously practiced ch'am-seon at home, but his family was sometimes noisy—just the normal noises one would expect in a household—and the man would often cut his own meditation short in order to storm out of his room and shout at everyone to be quiet: not a peep! It got to the point that the wife approached Seung Sahn about her husband's behavior, and Seung Sahn angrily shouted at the man that he obviously had no idea what meditation was. "Your FAMILY is your most important meditation!" he bellowed.* I think this story offers many lessons. Among them is the lesson that ch'am-seon is, at bottom, merely a technique, no more elevated or sacred than assuming proper posture on the toilet. Like any technique, it can be misused, misunderstood, and abused, at which point it ceases to be useful. Just as important is the common-sense lesson that, in life, you need to have your head screwed on straight, and this angry meditator obviously didn't.

2. I said above that I never encountered any major difficulties while meditating. That's true, but I'll recount one minor difficulty. I appeared at temple one day with a cold, and when I sat on my cushion and began meditating along with everyone else, I realized to my horror that my nose was running too severely for me to be able to keep the snot inside it by sniffling periodically. The question began to ring in my head like a desperate mantra: "Should I break posture and blow my nose?" In the end, I chose to stay seated where I was, my nose steadily dripping, until the end of the first 40-minute session. At that point I desperately grabbed at some tissue before walking meditation began and blew my nose.

During the post-meditation dharma talk, I asked Master Shin about what I should have done in that situation. Should I have broken posture? His answer wasn't a direct response: he gave me a funny look and said, "What you were doing wasn't meditation." It took me a while to decipher what he had said, but in the end I understood him to mean this: my first mistake was to come to temple with a cold. My cold was preventable, and I hadn't acted mindfully during the week to keep myself healthy, and thus ready for meditation. My next mistake was to spend my time on the cushion doing nothing but thinking "Me, me, me: what am I going to do about my nose?" Far from "the mind has no address," my mind was focused rather squarely on myself and my dripping schnoz. Master Shin was right: no meditation was happening there. Instead, it was all ego.

That same day, a Korean woman two cushions down from me suffered her own problem: she had parked her cell phone next to her on her rectangular meditation cushion, and it rang, obnoxiously loud, in the midst of the dharma hall's pristine silence. Unlike me, however, the woman didn't obsess over the problem: she reached down, quickly turned the phone off, and simply returned to meditating. Her mind was indeed just like a cork on the waves. In this case, the wave was the ringing phone, and her answer was an ego-free response to its ring: she turned it off and kept right on meditating. No shame, no regret, no ego. Had I been more aware of the lesson she was teaching me at the time, I wouldn't have had to ask Master Shin my question about breaking posture.

In Korean Seon, the maxim is, "Follow your situation." Everything you do in life should naturally arise from the demands of the moment. Reality is a living dynamic, so there can be no single, prescribed response to all situations—just as there's no single medicine to cure all ailments.

And that, sir, is about as much of a dharma talk as I can give you this evening.


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*Seung Sahn, The Compass of Zen, p. 110. A more detailed version of this story is found in another of Seung Sahn's books.


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