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I parked my bike in Japan and flew to San Francisco (December 2002). A friend picked me up at the airport and gave me a ride to the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a Buddhist community a couple of hours driving north past the Golden Gate bridge (in Ukiah).
The annual “Chan” (Zen in Chinese) meditation retreat (I also had done it the previous winter) was very demanding. It began each day at 4 am and ended at midnight. Fourteen hours of meditation, with periods of fifteen minutes in between each sitting that I employed to do some walking, stretching and yoga.
The three weeks passed peacefully, mostly under the patter of the raindrops that winters usually bring to northern California, inviting one to meditate, to imitate nature in its hibernation.
By then I could sit in full lotus throughout the whole retreat, a feat unthinkable just a few years ago. The first days were of adaptation to the schedule and to the leg pain, unlike that on the bike caused by immobility.
The mind also needed some time to get used to the change and to realize that its objects of attention were no longer external, that the traffic I should pay attention to were not vehicles with combustion engines outside, but thoughts and emotions inside, some quite flammable.
Gradually, body and mind settled down to a dynamic (or I should say static), where the days went as if without discontinuity among them.
At the end of the three weeks of retreat, I felt rejuvenated; ready to return to Japan to finally start the pilgrimage of the 88 temples around the island of Shikoku, but “something” would interfere with my plans, as we shall see in the next post.
COMPASSIONATE NEW YEAR!
Our sense of self, of being individuals carved out from the fabric of life, is only an illusion experienced as unsatisfactory. This illusion is built upon a composite, impermanent and in constant flux, of body-mind operational constituents, totally interconnected with everything else in the universe, operating according to the general principle of cause and effect (Skt. karma).
The correct practice of a proper spiritual path will cause the progressive fading away of this sense of independent self and its selfish desires, and, to the degree that this is accomplished, a corresponding degree of authentic awareness will be uncovered, and suffering mitigated. Eventually, the complete purge of this illusion will reveal our unconditional nature which is pure, permanent, and completely satisfactory.
There seems to be a teleological purpose or goal in life: the realization of an insuperable awakening or illumination, and, although it is important to know about this goal and have the aspiration to achieve it, the practitioner should not hold consciously this goal-oriented mind while doing her practices. Hidden in this go-getter mind is the very same sense of independent self that needs to be ‘seen for what it is’. On the other hand, to practice with confidence in the method is fundamental to making progress adequately. Although, from a conventional point of view, the achievement of this final awakening will happen in a future time, from an ultimate point of view, this too is relative, since one of the ‘characteristics’ of that non-referential awareness is its atemporality.
Given that we are caught up in the illusion of the ordinary mind, we still need to use a language to report about issues that are beyond its scope, not constrained to logic and linear syntax, and even more, not constrained to space-time and matter-energy.
Following a spiritual path is therefore not at all about escaping from life, but actually quite the opposite; we could say it is ‘escaping into life’; it is about having a radical new experience of life, full and ‘transparent’. A mind moving with the unfolding universe does not really move because there is not any reference from which to perceive movement. The epistemological consequence of such awareness is tremendous: in such mind there is no opportunity for a self identity to congeal into an entity. This fresh awareness is the fully complete experience of the present in moment after moment.
But to awaken to this dynamic mode of awareness, which is not other than the most natural one, ‘unfortunately’, we must develop power of attention and focus, and this is what I consider a primary element to be fostered by the practice of meditation. Other purposes, such as stress management, physical fitness, development of psychic powers, etc., are totally secondary. This does not mean that these side effects will not happen or that they are intrinsically negative; what it means is that they will simply come as natural byproducts of a grander spiritual purpose.
The practical consequence of the above discussion is that, in each single moment, awakening is present, and one can be aware of this while a sense of self is still present, though this self is now completely innocuous.
Thus, in becoming one with every-thing and -nothing, at the core, the distinction of us being independent from others vanishes, whose natural consequence is the welling of unlimited empathy and compassion, and explains why most genuine spiritual paths include in one way or another love in its most refined form.
Acting compassionately brings forth awakening, which is no other than the merging of the unlimited wisdom of pure and always-present awareness with its practical manifestation as unconditional compassion.
During those long and joyous mornings in Japan, reading, meditation and yoga absorbed all my interest, to the point that the rest of my day became a formality to meet. Gradually and without realizing it, I was becoming an ascetic monk.
One of the visitors with whom I spent a weekend in Kyoto is a renowned Galician scientist I met during his sabbatical at Nagoya University. In addition to nationality and profession, we shared the same degree of spirituality, he from a Catholic perspective and I from a Buddhist, but both with equal degree of depth and openness.
In Kyoto, besides visiting the architectural wonders, we attended a conference at Otanji University (incidentally, where D.T. Suzuki carried out much of his work), but, above all, we went to meditate to a small monastery, the remnant of the great “Antaiji” after it was moved from Kyoto to a distant mountain on the north coast of Japan. All the practical knowledge my friend had on meditation was what I had passed him the previous night in the “ryokan” (traditional Japanese hotel).
At the monastery, we sat for four periods of fifty minutes, interspersed by ten minutes of walking meditation, a truly demanding first-experience. When we finished, and while we were sipping green tea, he described the experience with a plain, “good, good,” quite unrevealing, even more coming from a Galician (well-known for their vagueness). I asked him about the discomfort, the sore legs and the insects (some green pentagon-shaped bugs that fly straight to crash loudly against the walls of paper or the meditators, that had been bothering all day long). His reply was, “What bugs?” I couldn’t believe it, he hadn’t noticed the insects or the leg pain!
When full of curiosity I asked him about his method of meditation, he replied, “I just recited all the time ‘My Lord, my beloved’.”
In a very intuitive way, he managed to focus his attention by reciting a “Catholic mantra.” A true lesson.
A secretary of the department where I worked at Nagoya University, knowing my interest in meditation, put me in contact with a monk of the Soto Zen tradition, Sushoku Roshi (Uchiyama Roshi’s disciple), who lived in the mountains stretching between the old capitals Kyoto and Nara. The monastery was surrounded by nature and exemplified perfectly the wabi-sabi idea, beautiful in its imperfection and rustic simplicity.
That was how, during the three years I lived in Japan, I attended every month a retreat (sesshin) of three days, facing the wall hour after hour, in the company of a few people with similar spiritual concerns (I was the only gaikokujin).
From the first retreat, Sushoku Roshi made it clear that he wouldn’t accept my money, so I always arrived with some rice, fruits and green tea, though all the gold of the Roman mines in Iberia wouldn’t be enough to repay his generosity and silent teachings.
The four seasons exuded through each of the retreats. The bright snows of the winter months, the perfumed flowers of the fruit trees in spring, the shrill chirping of cicadas in summer, or the pitch-black starry nights of fall, all had their particular charm, and somehow affected the quality of meditation.
The retreat was spent in complete silence, with no other sounds than those of nature and the footprints on the old tatami. We lived amid the austere formality of a practice imported from the continent but that has been marinated for many centuries with the own spices of the islands.
The night before and after of the retreat, we all soaked in the ofuro, a hot bath in a black iron-pot with capacity for one person, heated from its base with a pine-wood fire (it wouldn’t be felt strange to see around sharp-teethed cannibals).
For the meals, each one of us had three bowls in order of decreasing size for rice, vegetables and preserved radish, respectively. The last one was served sliced and it was very useful to wash the bowl with a little of water. Finally, the bowls were dried with a cloth and stacked, while the cloth and sticks were placed on top. The most spectacular part of the operation was at the end, when the set had to be tied up with a handkerchief in a movement that requires some practice. Without having to wash dishes, everything was left ready for the next meal.
At the end of the retreat, we descended together the mountain, just in time to take a small bus out of a village in the valley to a nearer town, where in turn we had to take a bus to the train station of the charming city of Uji, known throughout Japan for its temple Byodoin, of unsurpassed aesthetic harmony. Uji is also famous for its excellent green tea, to which I’d add its red bean and rice cakes (perhaps a biased comment given how well everything tastes after a retreat).
From Uji, we took a commuter train to Kyoto station (spectacular in any other city than Kyoto, whose atmosphere invites to a different architectural solution), where each one of us departed to our final destination.
The progressive descent from the pristine mountains to the most populous cities had a bittersweet taste because, on one hand the trip gave me the opportunity to chat with my silent companions: a retired school-teacher of German, a professional dancer, a businessman, a renowned monk from Antaiji temple, and a woman whose voice was way too sweet, bordering on profound shyness. But, on the other hand, as nature was staying behind and I got more and more immersed in what we call civilization, the noise, artificial lights and, specially, the faces of the people on the public transportation brought me back to a reality that looked more like a dream, and not a pleasant one.
Education of youth is the key element to create happy people living in harmonious societies. I believe that to expose the youth to meditational techniques (obviously adapted to their capacities) is of vital importance to balance the extreme emphasis on the rational and analytical capacities toward which educational systems all over the world have veered.
For children in kinder garden, 5 minutes of guided meditation would suffice, whereas for older kids, 10 minutes with some time of sitting in total silence, could be possible. Meditation could be presented as a game, accompanied with stretching exercises oriented for children.
I tested a special CM meditation of 40 minutes with a group of teenagers, and they liked it precisely because of the diversity of techniques, so they did not feel bored and time passed quickly. Another personal observation is that kids love to bow when it is introduced as a joyful activity; never as a punishment! (Believe it or not, I witness this kind of ‘educative tool’).
Therefore, the short CM meditation (half an hour) could be suitable to introduce meditation to teenagers, whose range of attention is not high, better off than other designs with longer periods and dealing with a single practice.
Likewise, the above discussion for children and teenagers is also applicable to elders, since they may be unable to endure long periods of sitting in meditation. Meditation could also be done sitting on chairs. The exercises should be also appropriate to their physical condition, and bowing could be done as half-bows instead of full prostrations.
CM could be introduced as a meditational practice to complement programs of recovery of addictions such as Alcoholic Anonymous, or similar ones. The core of the method used in these groups is to recognize a greater power that gives the necessary strength to overcome the addiction, which is usually referred to as ‘God’ or a ‘Higher Being.’ The feeling of helplessness and guilt, and its redemption through faith in God is a well known psychological mechanism. It is at this point that many of those who approach this kind of program find the most difficult hurdle to pass, especially if they are not inclined to religious attitudes. Because of this aspect, many voices have raised their concerns about what sometimes resembles a ‘cult’.
Meditation covers the necessity of a greater power without needing any God or Higher Being other than the more authentic awareness that is uncovered through its practice. Mere meditation can be a technique too difficult for people who have serious emotional disturbances and low self esteem. Such people, when trying to still their minds, often get the opposite result. Therefore, more guidance than usual may be necessary, and it is in this regard that CM may turn to be ideally suited, since every five minutes there is going to be a call of attention and an affirmation, which is a form of positive thinking.
Besides, CM is accessible to anyone from the first time it is practiced, and given its integral combination of practices, may approach the process of recovering not only as the readjusting of a weak psyche or will, but as much more holistic approach to body and mind.
Meditation has been tested in prisons with spectacular results. You may take a look at this link to check out how long-term incarcerated people can transform their lives through meditation. (Thank you Jaleh for sending the link).
Meditation is not necessarily only a Buddhist practice, at least in the restrictive sense that some may have of the term Buddhism, but is open to be adapted to any spiritual path. In fact, I purposely designed CM to be as inclusive as possible to any tradition, and I would seriously doubt any genuine practitioner, regardless of her background, that would have any objection based on doctrinal argumentation to these practices and affirmations.
The most serious difficulty I foresee in the structure of CM is the practice of bowing. Protestants on account of historical reasons, Catholics on account of idolatry, and atheists on suspicion of being a self-devaluating gesture, may have problems in prostrating. But, if we are able to leave aside these concerns, we may discover one of the most powerful techniques of spiritual transformation.
A well-trained mind develops ethical behavior, not out of imposition, indoctrination or superstitious fear, but as a natural consequence of seeing things for what they are, i.e. as profound insights into causal mechanisms operating in the totality of the structures of life. The ethos derived from such wisdom steers life in a way that is conducive to the elimination of suffering.
The importance of cultivating the ethical dimension of our personality to make sound progress in our spiritual path cannot be emphasized enough. Any action of body, speech and mind volitionally introduced into the fabric of the universe will bring back an equivalent response when the conditions make it possible.
This simple rule of cause and effect -popularly known as karma- must be observed with fine attention if we do not want to be overwhelmed by all kind of difficulties, both external and internal, that affect our physical and mental health. The path is already difficult enough without the extra problems caused by unskillfully dealing with karma. Awakening does not mean complete elimination of karma, but thoroughly understanding its functioning.
Our recent history on the teaching of meditation for westerners has already left us with very revealing aspects to how this should be, or at least how it should not be, conducted. In the 60s and 70s, many westerners used the writings of D. T. Suzuki to justify a way of life diametrically opposed to the one envisaged by him. In talking about how to ‘uninstall’ the ego, Suzuki took for granted that the Dao would manifest, whereas it was the uninhibited assertion of self-willed instincts that occurred.
Zen expects that one must be rooted in virtue. This assumption might have been present in the social elite of some eastern societies, but not necessarily in western ones. Therefore, any responsible teaching about meditation must include virtue as an integral aspect of the practice.
Positive thinking is a subject that has gained popularity recently, yet it is an old and well-known spiritual technique. The emphasis in the embracing and holistic intention of traditional forms marks the main difference between a genuine spiritual approach and the more self-centered one of modern motivational methods.
The typical modern objective of positive thinking could be formulated in terms of boosting one’s attitude and of promoting self growth. This promotion and reinforcement of the self is also the main goal of modern psychotherapy. There is nothing wrong with this approach when it is targeted to the mentally disturbed, who may be lacking self esteem or be prone to apathy, but it should be noted that, for real growth, such approach is limited since it lacks a genuine spiritual dimension.
Therefore, an authentic positive mind must be imbued with wholesome thoughts that anticipate happiness, joy, health and a successful outcome of every situation and action, not only for the sake of oneself but for all living beings.
I sat on the carpet of my apartment with my legs crossed trying to imitate the posture I had seen in one of the illustrations of the Zen book I had just read.
“Impossible!,” I thought, with the body bent and one knee almost up to my shoulder. The thing took a better look after placing a generous cushion under my buttocks, but to put both feet on the thighs, in the so called lotus position, seemed more a circus contortion than a spiritual practice.
“I need a teacher,” I thought and, without a better idea, I opened the yellow pages and looked up under the letter M of monastery (this didn’t seem the best way to seek for a master).
“Eureka!,” I shouted when I realized there was a Buddhist monastery just a few blocks from my place, so I decided to pay a visit. The term “monastery” was definitely not the most fitting one for a house with a shed in the courtyard that functioned as the zendo. I paid one hundred dollars to be able to attend for a month (every morning from six to eight), a sitting period of forty minutes, an un-sitting period of twenty minutes, and perform a Korean gymnastic accompanied by drums and hoarse voices for almost an hour.
My meditative baptism was just awful. The intense pain caused by sitting motionless on the floor, in silence and darkness for forty minutes that seemed four hundred, was excruciating. While the others stood up to drink some tea and go to the bathroom, I remained on the floor uncrossing my legs in slow motion with awkward gestures that nobody seemed to care. Finished the “resting period,” it began a weird gymnastic dancing, and the only teaching I got was, “do what others do.”
By the end of the month –no surprise– I dropped out. The good thing about that horrendous month was that, from then on, I could sit crossed-legged in half-lotus my good half an hour at my place. Besides, I discovered the “dawns.”
Up to that moment, when the sound of the alarm clock went off every morning, I threw myself out of the bed to run a race of hurdles in which I had to “jump over” shavings, drinking bitter coffees, finding pairs (of socks), shaking crumbs out of documents, getting on the bike while juggling with stuffy donuts, etc. At my best, I could do all in less than fifteen minutes, shower included.
After my “baptism of fire,” I got up early and quietly, I practiced a shortened version of the Korean gymnastics, and then I sat to meditate for half an hour while the intensity of the light of the dawn rose slowly into the room, yet not in my mind, which was trapped in any of the Zen riddles (koans)…
A monk asked Joshu, “Has a dog Buddha-nature or not?” and Joshu answered, “Moo.”
I struggled between crying out of pain or bursting into laughing, because to me the koan only made sense if the monk would have asked about a cow. Even at those early times I already had clear a very important lesson: that without sense of humor cultivation is impossible. So, remember, Moo!
During the last few decades, hundreds of research studies on meditation have produced numerous significant findings in areas as diverse such as the psychological, physiological, and transpersonal realms.
However, the poor quality in terms of scientific procedure of most published literature on this the field of meditation precludes any definitive conclusion.
Given the tremendous ‘subjectivity of the subject’ of investigation, it is not surprising that the conclusions are ambiguous. The writing style reflects the uncertainty experienced in this field of research, with sentences of the style of “some intriguing hints of meditation changing early cortical processing appear reliable and may reflect changes in attentional resource allocation.”
It is interesting the correlation found between the brain waves of long meditators with those of deep sleep. I cannot avoid to think if the sound meditators will not literally be indulging in drowsiness. Leaving irony aside, it seems scientifically proved that, indeed, there is an increased access to a witnessing awareness of mental contents in meditative and sleep-related states.
As cognitive psychology seems to be moving into the ‘meditational behaviors’ as a promising field of research, I should say emphatically that meditation should not be seized upon as a cognitive or behavioral technique decontextualized from the wisdom in which it is proposed, i.e. the education of awareness by insight, mindfulness and compassion, qualities not easy at all to evaluate in cognitive psychology.
The scientific method, based on analytical objectivity, can not expand to deal with the gnosis of contemplative wisdom because this is derived from elevated mental states that transcend the rational mind and is acquired through moral discipline and trained focused attention. As a result, what actually happens in comparative studies between mystical and scientific gnosis is that the first is always constrained to the study of sacred text, which is the only approach manageable by the rational discursive mind.
And yet, the meanings and interpretations of holy texts are not unique, but can be very different depending on the capacity of the reader. Additionally, they have a very peculiar capacity of affecting the mind at subliminal levels, deeper than the intellectual, by means of the skillful use of a language full of repetitions, archetypal images, metaphors, etc, all of which is completely overlooked in the rational investigation of its meanings.
As long as researchers will be engaged in applying the methods of the reductionist view of scientific positivism, i.e. the physical and material constitutes all there is to reality and the only proper object of scientific scrutiny, it will be impossible to even scratch the surface of subjectivity, or better said, the inter-subjectivity of experience.
Nonetheless, in spite of the many limitations, to explore the scientific views conjointly with the Dharma could be at least interesting and, given the contextual situation of the present era in which science has become so prominent, perhaps even necessary.