While pedaling along the North Sea coast of Japan, I remembered that my first sesshin (meditation retreat) took place precisely in the coastal city I was visiting again. It had an audible earthy presence and a very presidential name: Obama, in Fukui prefecture.

In the temple most of the meditators were foreigners. Now I remember with a smile my inexperience, stuffed into a multicolored tracksuit surrounded by people in sober attairs and martial airs.

The very first day of the retreat I was startled thinking that a fire had catched the temple, because at the ringing of a bell everyone rose immediately from their zabuton (sitting pad) and left the room in a hurry. I came last, with one leg still asleep, thinking we were going to pick buckets of water, but turning a corner I saw everyone kneeling silently in a row, waiting their turn to hold an interview with the Zen Master, Harada Roshi.

I listened in horror the scolding that the imposing Zen Master blasted on the meditator who preceded me. When my turn came, I entered nervous the room, I knelt before him and all I could say was that my legs were very sore.

Harada Roshi opened his eyes, smiled and said, “Itami to heiwa, onaji mono desu” (pain and pleasure are the same thing).

I went back to my cushion thinking about that phrase. I did not doubt they were the same thing, but my legs had a different take on that issue…