Zen and Meditation in Kamakura

April 28, 2014 nicki - 1 Comment

We started the day by waking up to a pounding on our hotel door. I sprang out of bed to hear Shalini call for Sheng chia who was sleeping in the bed beside mine. I opened the door squinty eyed, Shal stood all dressed saying ‘still asleep? it’s 7.30! We have to go!’ I realised our alarm did not wake us up and so we sprang into a frenzy to get ready and Sheng Chia made sure that everyone was awake by knocking on their rooms. 

Downstairs, a few were ready. We all gathered as a group in the lobby and did our head count. 

Once we realised we were all for one and one for all, we checked out, left our suitcases in the lobby for the day and headed to Yokohama train station. 

On the platform we cued in lines as they do in Japan for the train doors. Every thing is very civilised like this in Japan, no body ‘steps on another’s toes’ and rarely brushes shoulders. Personal space is highly respected and I generally found Japanese culture to be very dignified and considerate this way, unlike the circus the London Underground can be sometimes back at home.

We arrived in Kamakura, the coolness in the air after last night’s rainfall was refreshing. Walking past the vast greenery of trees and the last of the cherry blossoms, I immediately felt a more zen-like presence than in central Tokyo.   

We walked towards the oldest Zen monastery in Japan, the Kencho – Ji temple and we all fell silent. 

Kencho-Ji is the first-ranked of the five great Zen temples of Kamakura and is the oldest Zen training monastery in Japan.

We were met by the head Buddhist monk who led us to the entrance, walking through the zen gardens. The flowers were like nothing I’d ever seen before, huge peonies flowers of many different colours and soft pink rose trees. Ahead, the Hato temple with the traditional Japanese roof and another with a huge intricately designed golden door called Karamon. 

At the entrance of Hojo hall, we removed our shoes and entered the meditation room. The head monk and his assistant told us to get a large cushion each which were piled up in the corner and had us line up in two long lines. We did so and he told us to sit in lotus position. This is different than sitting crossed legged because both soles of the feet are to face upwards – hence like petals of a lotus. You really feel the strong stretch of the ligaments of the shin and apparently it improves blood circulation. We cupped our hands, palms up, one over the other and touched thumbs and eyes had to be open with the gaze about 45 degrees in front of your body. We sat this way for three sessions of 10/15mins. The first one I found was really wonderful, I found myself go thoughtless quickly. The second session wasn’t as pleasant, I started being more aware of the pain my legs in this posture were in; and in the third session the monk had a stick with which he was smack you on the back with it should you ask by bowing during the meditation. The purpose of this was to focus your attention if you had thoughts or it wakes you up if you were tired. I heard the slaps down the line, apparently Lenin was the first to experience it. A few more hits were made and as I saw the monk’s feet approaching from the corner of my eye I felt curious to see what it might feel like, so I lowered my head, he faced me and we began the ritual, we bowed to each other, he placed the stick on the muscles between my shoulder blades and tapped sharply twice. I felt myself needing to laugh, perhaps it was a catharsis or I felt it was rather unusual … I did however feel it’s benefits because the sharpness of the pain did allow you to go back into a thoughtless meditation.

After the 3 sessions we walked around he temple twice outside, it allowed us to take in the cool air, stretch our legs and enjoy the beautiful zen garden in its full glory. The zen master then invited us for lunch, we put the mats back and headed to the lunch hall. 

He said that in Buddhism everything is to done in silence, from walking around the temple to eating. You must be with yourself and not allow the distractions of conversation to allow thoughts to enter. 

When we arrived in the dining room we sat at our places on straw mats and with red bowls in front of us, two lines facing each other. The monk said that in Buddhism they respect all life, the food that they eat (mainly vegetarian and organically grown), the person who planted it as well the person who cooks and cleans are all to be acknowledged and respected. He said life (of a plant) gives life to us (humans) so we give back to nature and that was symbolised by a small bit of rice we each offered to be given to the birds outside.

When food came it consisted of two boiled potatoes, some green beans, soup with tofu and some strange Japanese jelly  and a bowl of plain white rice. It was bland to say the least, but it was necessary to challenge our taste buds. There was something quite gratifying and humbling about eating food without any taste. A Buddhist monk’s life is one of detachment from sensual and materialistic pleasures and one of a peaceful and dedicated mind. 

The monk said that people from all religions come to his temple from Muslims to Jews to Christians. He gave us a story that young people from Israel and Palestine came to his temple, they meditated, talked and ate together. He said that the food which he agreed was bland was accessible to people from all religions around the world. 

We ate in silence in two long lines facing each other and at the end we asked the monk a few questions. Shalini asked what is the aim for your meditation? He said to silence the mind and we asked if he goes thoughtless, he said yes but the technique is more about focusing the mind to go void of thought rather than allow thoughts to vanish spontaneously.

We then asked him if he had any questions for us, he said he’d like to know more about our meditation practice. Ram gave him a short introduction and we offered whether he’d like to try, he accepted and Ram led the realisation, going through the affirmations and at the end we sat in silent meditation.

When it was finished Ram asked if he had felt anything. He said hot hands but was peaceful, same with his assistant. We all thanked each other and left the dining room to visit an art exhibition upstairs before leaving the monastery. 

Next we went to visit the Great Buddha of Kamakura, the Daibutsu. The giant turquoise Buddha, over 13 meters high and weighing over 120 tonnes is considered a national treasure. It’s construction began in 1252.

After that we all went to the beach. It was very windy yet we risked being blown away to have a foot soak in the sea. 

After an eventful day we ventured back to our hotel to get the night bus to Kyoto where the adventure continued …


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