Earlier, I talked about the importance of a weekly meditation practice, and today I am going to talk about the values a monthly meditation practice can bring. The core concept is the same, most people can’t really take 2 hours to meditate everyday (even though you should probably try to anyways) but at the end of each week it is nice to have some sort of longer meditation process so that you can begin each week with a clean slate. Similarly, most people don’t have the time to meditate for 6 hours every week, so that is where a monthly meditation practice comes in.
Zazenkai is basically a half-day of sitting meditation. I leave the house at around 5:30 and don't get back until noon. It seems like a bit much, and it most certainly is for those who haven’t had much experience with meditation. I’m no expert, but if I had to guess I would say if this is your first experience with meditaion, it might be detrimental to your practice. I would recommend at least an hour of meditation before you try something like this, otherwise you will probably just be fidgeting the whole time. I was somewhat prepare for this at the time. I had already done a few weekly sessions at Ekoji, and because we would be breaking Zazenkai down into 40 minute segments
First we did our usual practice. 40 minutes of sitting meditation, 10 minutes of walking meditation and then another 40 minutes of siting meditation. We then read some sutras and conducted our usual rituals. We later had breakfast, and I was able to practice a new skill: mindful eating. Luckily for me, the breakfast was vegan friendly and I think the principles that Buddhism teaches like non-harm and respect for all living things are what lead me down this path in the first place. Because there were a few newcomers in the group, one of the members taught us how to hold the bowl and the utensils. Because so much of Zen Buddhism is inherited from Japan, much of our rituals reflect that. An example of this was holding the bowls a little bit higher than I was used to.
Afterwards, the whole breakfast was silent. There was no exchange of words, just a quick dedication as a thank you for the food we enjoyed. This was very nice actually. I have only sat in silence and had a meal with other people just a couple of times and it was quite peaceful. Afterwards, I did another 40 minutes of meditation, and afterwards I went for a walk around outside with a friend. We said very few words to each other the entire time, we were both just enjoying the moment. Then came the truly profound experience.
We were walking around the neighborhood, barefoot of course, and even though I had been to this part of the city a hundred times, it all seemed new to me. I saw a few buildings I had never seen before and ended up feeling as if we had been teleported to a different place. The reality was not teleportation, but something equally powerful. They call it, the beginner’s mind. During the long meditation session, I was able to clear my slate to the point where this familiar neighborhood suddenly looked unfamiliar. This was a clear indication of the power my practice had and I was eager to continue. Feeling as if we had just had an adventure, we headed back inside. Here, our Zen priest taught us some basic form and posture.
For those of you who are interested in this particular practice, I will share with you the posture. Although no form of meditation can be regarded as “incorrect”, it is sometimes helpful to have some guidance so that you don’t drift off during your practice.
First, you want to find yourself a zafu and a zabuton. These are meditation cushions that help improve your posture and I actually find them great for sitting in general. If you are going to only get one of these, make it the Zafu because it is far less replaceable. The zabuton is just a padded mat but the zafu is a very firm cushion that helps you straighten you spine and even makes it easier to sit in a cross legged position. When you elevate your sakerum like this, your legs begin to fall into place. Anyone who has ever done yoga knows this to be true. I enjoy putting my legs in the Burmese pose, although anyone who can do a half lotus or full lotus is encouraged to do so. I think the full lotus leg position is actually easier than it looks. You may look at your legs and think “It must take years to get these in the right position!” but it will actually happen all at once. For me, it happened one night when I was feeling particularly limber. I was sitting on the floor and said to myself “why don’t I try something new”. Before I knew it, I was looking at the bottoms of both of my feet. If you get tired of this product, you can also look into the Seiza posture. This is a great way to give your legs a break halfway through your meditation session.
Anyways, the legs aren’t as important, what is important is that you feel both grounded and comfortable during the meditiation session. Sometimes it may help to add an extra cushion beneath you so that your legs can fall into position. You then want to place both of your hands together a little bit below your belly button. This is important because if your hands are too low, the body will become relaxed and it will begin to drift off. The mudra you want to use for this is hokkai-join or dharmadhatu-mudra. This is actually pretty important because it acts as a barometer during your meditation practice. If the mind is using too much effort, your thumbs will begin to press up against one another. If you put too little effort or focus into your practice, the thumbs will begin to drift apart. You will know that you are maintaining just the right amount of “soft-focus” when the thumbs are perfectly aligned with little pressure.
I learned a lot from this session, and at the end I received a copy of Zen Mind, beginner’s mind, a book by Shunryu Suzuki that teaches the importance of the beginner’s mind. This was such an appropriate end to the session, and I went home looking forward to learning all about this new tool and how to practice it in my daily life.