Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Zen Torture

A few weeks ago I participated in an intensive zen retreat.  The man I like to call the "Monk Master" starved me, hit me, forbade speaking and bathing, left me in a room so cold I could see my breath and told me I couldn't wear socks, and made me weed a grave site.  He instructed me to sit without moving a muscle for hours and hours, and I wasn't to move even when my feet fell asleep and my hips were aching, and my toes were turning red from cold.  He woke me with a hand-bell at 4am.  

And somehow, he convinced me to pay for this. 

I arrived at the Tetsugyuji Temple in Yufuin City, Oita Prefecture, on Friday night and sat on the tatami mats with 7 companions and the Monk Master (who's name is Paul.  He is the first Westerner to be named Head Abbot of a Zen Temple in Japan.  I guess he is a monk.  I'm not sure.).  The Monk Master gave us some preliminary teachings on what we were about to do; how to sit, why we sit, what we should think about while we sit...  

The big activity of the weekend, the reason we were there, was to learn zazen (literally seated meditation, in Japanese  坐禅).  In English, we called it just "sitting."

On this Friday evening and before each sitting, we got a square seat pillow and a round cushion.  Each of us was to put down the square pillow on the edge of the room, and line it up with the ribbon on the tatami mat.  Then we placed the round cushion on top and that's where we would sit, in lotus, half-lotus, Indian style, or seiza (to do seiza you get on your knees, put your feet flat on the floor behind you, and sit on your heels with your knees together.  All Japanese people can do this easily for long periods of time, whether they are young or old, thin or fat) for hours every day.  Many, many hours every day.  Many, and basically staring at the wall.   

On Friday night I think we only sat for 40 minutes, then did "kinhin," which is walking meditation.  The Monk Master rings this big bell and we get up, bow to our place, bow to the center of the room, and then prepare for walking.  Several times people fell and crashed into the walls because their legs were asleep.  Then we walk in a circle around the edge of the room twice, slowly and not stepping on the ribbons or creases between the tatami mats.  It takes 8-10 minutes to do this.  I think what happened was Buddha was like, "I'm gonna lose limbs here if I don't get up and shake it out," hence kinhin.  Usually we would settle back in for another 40 or 50 minutes after kinhin.  

After our brief sitting on Friday night, we prepared our beds.  We brought futons, blankets and pillows into the temple.  This had to be done fast... 

...Everything had to be done fast.  My mother would laugh so hard if she coulda seen me running around trying to keep up with the rigid disciplined schedule, the look on my face sometimes of disbelief and other times of misery.  I really don't know why, but it often takes me longer to do things and I'm always the last one ready.  The schedule and pace disagreed with me.  I'm an artsy type.  I like to float around, you know.  I do like to work fast, I like to tap dance fast, I like to think fast, but I like to wake up sloooooow.  I like to prepare food and eat at a reasonable but leisurely pace.  I like to stop sweeping and stare out the window for a few minutes.  Not at the temple...

...Once we got our beds ready we jumped in and went to sleep, this was around 8:30pm.  Lights out was 9pm, but we were all so tortured and tired we didn't worry about the 20 or 30 minutes.  Besides, in bed we were finally warm.

Then all of a sudden it was 4am and the blazing overhead lights came up quick after the ringing bell.  On the first day I tried to do what I would usually do on a Saturday morning:  Register that it was time to get up, then luxuriate for a few more minutes in the warmth of my squishy covers.  Then I would sit up and wiggle things out a little, take some deep breaths and moan some before finally opening my eyes... but by this time in zen-torture world people were already running around like chickens with their heads cut off and my brows were furrowed in resistance.  So, struggling, I got to my feet and started folding and lugging this big, heavy futon set back to the shelves, where I stood for a few precious minutes I didn't have wondering what I was gonna do cause I couldn't reach to put my stuff away.  A frustrated Jeff (this guy who had done this before and, although good-natured, was pretty serious about the whole thing) put my stuff away for me.  By that evening there was a step stool available.  Another thing about me being small is that I couldn't get my arms around my whole bedding set, so while everyone else could save time by taking their stuff in one trip, I had to take two trips.  See, sometimes I'm slow and inefficient, other times I'm just small.  Mom.

After putting the bedding away I had like 4 seconds to brush my teeth, go to the bathroom, add some layers to protect against the cold, and run to get my cushions and be ready to sit by the time the Monk Master rang the bell at 4:15am.  I didn't leave anything out.  I didn't have time to brush my hair, and I had to use breaks later in the day so I could change my underwear.  There were no showers even present.  And by the way, only Japanese squatty potties.  If you didn't realize, these are the toilets most widely available in Japan:

Japanese squatty potty

So after crazed waking up, I rushed to the temple, bowed on the way in "to my best self," and the gong rang.  Bow to the center, bow to my place, and sit.  Then I was to count my breaths and think of nothing else.  Commence hallucinations.  Naw, actually, I don't think I hallucinated until Sunday. 


-Wake up 4am
-Morning meditation 4:15 – 5:45am
- Cleaning/ Chanting 5:45 – 6:30
- Morning meal/juice 6:30
- Break until 7:30am
- Zazen meditation / Dokusan 7:30 – 10:30am
- Break 10:30 - 11am
- Meal/juice 11am.
- Break 11:30 – Noon.
- Chores Noon – 1pm
- Lecture 1pm – 2pm
- Break 2pm – 2:30pm
- Zazen meditation 2:30 – 4:30
- Macha break 4:30 – 5pm
- Break 5pm – 5:30
- Zazen meditation 5:30 – 7:30 pm
- Evening soup 7:30 – 8pm
- Preparation for bed
- Lights out 9pm.

 That's 7-8 hours of sitting and not moving each day.  To emphasize how torturous this can be, the schedule showed that on the last day we would only do the one-hour early meditation session.  When the Monk Master put up the schedule that showed an additional 3 hour session, one girl started crying.  In a previous intensive, a guy disappeared and wasn't found until the next day, having escaped in silence.  

And all those breaks shown on the schedule are BS.  When I was assigned to morning juice, I didn't get a break until 10:30am after the 2nd sitting, cause I was preparing before "breakfast" and cleaning up after.  I'd say I actually got two 30-minute breaks each day, during which I would take a nap on my electric blanket.  Yeah, bringing that thing was a stroke of genius.  I had my new friends snuggled up with me and tucking their feet under the edges.  You shoulda seen their faces when I brought that baby out.  Mmmm.

Meals were fast:  We brought out two long, low tables suitable for seiza sitting, drank our bowls of juice quickly, and then put everything away.  I'd guess that set up, drinking, and clean up took 30-minutes all together.

During cleaning we dusted the temple and the butsudan (statues), swept and mopped the floors, cleaned the toilets, and put the futons out to sun.  One day we weeded.  We juiced apples, pears, carrots, mikan (like tangerines), and did all the dishes.  All in silence.

Mostly.  We whispered a bit, and on Monday I had a full conversation in whisper.  And, well, I like comedy, I don't take life too seriously most of the time, I make a joke out of everything, and I have a gutter mind.  So how did I used those pillows during break time?  To play silent sumo.  How did I show that blue futons are for boys and pink futons are for girls?  Well, use your imagination. 

One last thing we learned about and experienced during the long weekend was "dokusan."  The Monk Master would ring a bell and then stand there like a samurai and bellow authoritatively, "DOKUSAN!"  Then he would go to the room down the hall and ring a bell.  At that time we could run and fight each other, in silence, for position in line to talk privately with the Monk Master.  When I heard the hand-bell I knew my turn had come, and I hit the small bell at the front of the line twice with a mallot, then ran down the hall, waited for the previous person to go, then entered another hallway.  I did a full bow on my knees with my forehead almost touching the ground, first at the end of the hallway, again after entering the room and closing the door, and again in front of the monk master, before dragging myself closer and into seiza.  Then we had a nice chat.  Since I was a beginner he was nice to me and didn't hit me with the "teaching stick."  After our chat, the only time I was allowed to speak, I reversed the bowing order, and made my egress.

I liked a few things about the intensive:  I liked the fresh juice fasting; it was healthy, yummy, and made me feel good.  I liked the silence, because I hide my social anxiety well but I really liked not having to worry about what to say to all these new people.  And I hesitate to say it, but I benefited from the glimpse of staunch discipline.  I now have a better idea of what I'm capable of in that arena.

The two things I can't forgive of that weekend in the Temple are the cold and the sleep deprivation.  I'm sensitive to cold and I need my sleep.  4am.  Pfaw.

After all, I was exhausted and I looked it, but my raging ocean of thoughts was calmed.  People asked me what I was thinking about and I could honestly say, "Nothing."  And I made a leap in my breathing technique.  I definitely discovered more space in my back and sides to get air into, which also improved my sitting posture.  I actually was able to use my breath to tell if I was sitting up straight.  It was cool.  

Oh, God, look at me.  And that's after I had been to the onsen!
 Honestly, I wouldn't do this particular retreat again, but I surely will do a different style at some point.  Something incorporating yoga, sauna, meditation, and nature would be ideal.  Somewhere warm.

From Japan,


Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Mumps

Knox has the mumps.

I found out during a class.  My first reaction was, "Oh, my God."  I started sweating, and I couldn't concentrate.  Near the end of the class, while the students were doing a worksheet, I called the teacher out into the hall and told her.  She said that she had had the mumps when she was young.  I was really nervous, but hearing that made it a little better.

When class was over I went down to the staff room and told another woman who has two sons and strikes me as very practical and sensible.  I'm emotional, so I wanted to hear what she had to say.  She said that most people who get it are fine.  Two other English teachers joined in and said that they didn't get the vaccine, had gotten the mumps, and that they were fine.  I was starting to see that although the mumps is a serious virus, it doesn't incite the fear that I expected from people.  In Japan, many people get the vaccination, and many people don't.  It's not viewed as the end of the world.

When I got to Knox, he was playing with toys with as much energy as ever, except the right side of his face was swollen.  He looked like a fat boy on one side, with a half double chin.  The night before this, he went to the children's night clinic because he had been throwing up all his food.  He got medicine and a drip of nourishment, so I was surprised when we sat down to lunch and he munched it all up with no problem.  Thank goodness he has been eating all his meals, drinking lots, and hasn't thrown up again since that night.  He can only take his fever/pain medicine every six hours, and his fever has been up to 101 near the 6 hour mark.  Imagine what it would be without the medicine!  

He has been in really good spirits and had great energy, despite the virus.  I have to tell him to sit down, be calm, stop jumping, stop yelling, so he can save his energy for getting better.  But it's very encouraging to see him so genki (lively).  He sees TV and he becomes transfixed, zombie-like, so I have been subduing him with hours and hours of downloaded Dinosaur Train.  Today he's being subdued with Tom & Jerry.  We are keeping him inside; no stores, no other people... and I feel pretty good right now that he will recover just fine.  But, you know, it's THE MUMPS!!  So I'm still a little nervous.  

Last night it spread to his left side, but he woke up with only a low fever.  I was confused by that, but glad that he seems to be doing ok.

The boy LOVES blueberries.  I keep frozen blueberries in the freezer all the time.  He loves dinosaurs, and you should hear him babbling dinosaur names and time periods in the bath that he learned from books and Dino Train, while he's playing with his sea creatures (only sea creatures are allowed in the bath).  If anyone reading this gets Knox clothes for Christmas, he can fit into 3T, but at this point 4T would be best, and even 5T is ok for some things.  He wore a 5T button up shirt the other day and it wasn't really too big.  

The busy season has started, and I think I have several scheduled events every weekend until I leave for America.  I won't be able to go to all of it.  Also, I'm doing this Zen-Buddhist retreat in Yufuin, about an hour from my apartment.  It's Friday to Monday, and I'll be silent all day except for chanting, get up around 4:30am for 3 mornings, and eat only fruit.  It's all about mastery of the mind and body, with a spiritual aspect to it.  I've wanted to do something like this for a long time, so I'm really looking forward to it. 

That's all folks.

From Japan,