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Sesshins at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. Current California Governor Jerry Brown did 4 sesshins when he was in Japan in the 1980’s. While I doubt if they were as intense as the sesshin described below, I sincerely hope Governor Brown remembers some of the lessons he learned from his intense meditation retreats.

From Eat Sleep Sit, pages. 275-278:

Every year, the first week of December is devoted exclusively to sitting. Beginning December 1, trainee monks rise at three in the morning, half an hour earlier than usual, and spend all day sitting facing the wall, until nine at night. This continues seven full days — no small feat.

… For seven days from three in the morning onward, we alternated forty-minute periods of sitting with ten-minute periods of slow walking. Not only is it painful to sit for long periods of time with the legs folded, but sleepiness interferes with concentration as well. Between periods of sitting, therefore, we would step down our platforms and shuffle around at a fixed pace, moving so slowly that in the time it took for one complete breath, in and out, we took just half a step. Slow walking is not considered a break from sitting, but must be undertaken with the same meditative frame of mind.

During the intensive sitting, participants remain seated in the Monks’ Hall not only for meals, but also for morning, midday, and evening services, which are held between sitting sessions. For seven days we practically never left our platforms.

… I had read of intensive sitting before coming to Eiheiji, and ever since it had held a peculiar fascination for me, lingering in my mind as the one practice above all others that seemed to embody the deepest, most sublime aspects of life in a Zen monastery. At the same time, I was anxious to know if I had it in me to carry off such a feat.

The seven days of sitting were beyond anything I could have imagined. Any feelings of fascination and curiosity I had at the start were quickly demolished. There is no way for me to convey the magnitude of the experience. With each passing day, the pain in my legs grew more agonizing: worse yet, fatigue built up in every cornet of my being until my consciousness began to flicker and dissolve. After a while I was no longer capable of the slightest thought or emotion, not even wondering why in the world I was sitting like that. Everything ceased to exist except for the simple fact of me sitting facing the wall.

Time drifted like incense smoke, and in the incense burner, the wreckage of elapsed time stacked up quietly in the form of white ash.

Intensive sitting certainly transcends the mere act of sitting. The final day, when everything comes to a climax, is called “all-night sitting”. On that day, we remained sitting until 1 a.m. the following day — in other words, the morning of December 8, the day of Buddha’s enlightenment.

As the hour of liberation approached, we were gripped by an intense excitement that wrecked the stillness in the hall and made breathing difficult.

… An then it happened. The cloud gong broke the silence, proclaiming the end of intensive sitting. With the first reverberation, I felt the sound transform to light and wash over me. The solemn tones inundated me in billows of radiance, flooding the darkest recesses of my mind with blinding light. … I let out the tension inside me with a sigh, and in that instant all the hardship of the past seven days disappeared without a trace.


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March 2, 2011 at 8:24 am

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Zen Discipline and Marking Milestones at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. In this passage, Kaoru and his fellow novices just celebrated a major milestone (the “Registration” ceremony), which removed their provisional status and made them into resident trainee monks.

From Eat Sleep Sit, p. 184:

There isn’t the slightest trace of relief or jubilation at having passed an important milestone. … Even though our status had altered, we were in no state to know what to think about it. Certainly the registration ceremony was an important rite of passage, but our daily lives were not about to change. That’s the nature of Zen discipline. Attaining high office or completing long years of discipline does not alter one’s treatment either. Zen discipline is not a staircase or a means of getting somewhere, it is rather about the successive moments of life — of existence itself. It means being fully aware in body and spirit of the fact of your life, and continuing to cultivate and practice the best way to live as a human being. This is the meaning of Dogen’s words, “Dignity is itself the Dharma. Propriety is itself the essence of the house.”

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February 18, 2011 at 8:18 am

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The Lust for food at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan. An earlier post contained excerpts about vegetarian meals at Eiheiji. In this post, Kaoru describes what happens when monks subjected to unrelenting pressure, aren’t given enough food!

From Eat Sleep Sit, p. 172-174:

Ancient Buddhist regulations treat the act of eating as a kinds of defilement. To us at that point, eating did seem like something furtive and dirty. Unable to content ourselves with what we were offered, we were assailed by uncontrollable cravings that deeply wounded our self-respect.

… In the common quarters, informal meals are prepared by the trainee in charge, who must also prepare meals for the two adjacent residences and clean up afterward. This involves bringing in trays of dishes from the neighboring residences to be washed in the sink. Every day, several trainee monks would gather when the trays came in, and proceed to fight over the leftovers. I stood dazedly by, watching others snatch up morsels and cram them into their mouths by the fistful, feeling troubled and guilty for having seen something I should not have. To think that these were human beings — it was all inexpressibly sad.

… Once you get away with something bad, without suffering even a reprimand, it often happens that you develop a new set of values accordingly. In time, I forgot that initial sense of emptiness. Rationality didn’t enter into it. When people are locked into a world of unrelenting pressure, their sense of reason, I found is all too vulnerable. And no amount of reason could fill an empty belly. Everyone was left with that most primitive of instincts fully exposed — the lust for food.

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February 4, 2011 at 8:03 am

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Methods and Purpose: Vegetarian Meals at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan (Eat Sleep Sit: p. 158-159):

… I should mention here that even though the main ingredients are all vegetables, such dishes are not strictly vegan. At Eiheiji, curries and stews are made using standard commercial roux, which does contain meat products. Even so, this does not violate any Buddhist precept.

In Thailand and other countries practicing Hinayana Buddhism, which emphasize adherence to ancient precepts, monks go begging for their food. They eat whatever is placed in their begging bowl, be it meat or vegetable, without penalty. The Discipline of the Ten Chants stipulates three conditions under which it is permissible to eat meat: if you did not see the animal being killed for your consumption; if you did not hear the animal being killed for your consumption; if it is certain the animal was not killed for your consumption. As long as these three conditions are satisfied, the meat placed in Thai monks’ begging bowls may be eaten with impunity.

What really matters is the determination not to take life. In fact society is full of people who spend so much energy pursuing the means of doing something that they all lose sight of purpose. Rather than thinking about purpose, people are more attracted by, and more proficient at having various methods at their disposal. But methods that are devoid of purpose or detached from ultimate meaning will often — like war, and like development in the name of progress — lead only to disaster.

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January 14, 2011 at 7:23 am

Posted in Ahimsa, Meditation, Quotes, Sadhana

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Lights out at Eiheiji

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Part of our series on Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan (p. 116 & 128):

As suggested by the saying “Awake half a mat, asleep a whole mat,” each person’s tatami represents the personal space alloted to him in the Monk’s Hall. For a trainee monk his mat is indeed the universe.

… At Eiheiji, the word for lights-out – kaichin – means literally “opening the pillow”. It goes back to the old days in Zen monasteries when monks used to sleep on folding wooden pillows. Today the practice of unfolding the pillow for sleep survives only in this word.

… No mattresses are used at Eiheiji, either. Instead each person has two quilts, which must take up no more than the allotted space. Before lying down you align them so that they overlap slightly, then roll them into a tube, which you must tie snugly at the bottom and loosely at the top before wriggling inside. Finally, you ties the covers once more around your chest, lie on your right side, and go to sleep. This position is chosen because it is the same position in which Buddha entered nirvana. Lying faceup is called “corpse sleep” and lying facedown “debauched sleep”. They are frowned on equally.

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December 15, 2010 at 8:00 am

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How to chant the Sutras

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I’m enjoying Eat Sleep Sit, Kaoru Nonomura’s account of his year-long stay at a Soto Zen temple. Not just any Zen temple, but Kaoru trained for a year at Eiheiji, the premier Zen training center in Japan, founded by Dogen himself. I have to say the training, as Kaoru describes it, is a bit harsh for my taste. It reminded me of Sesshins I’ve attended in the past, though the monastic training at Eiheiji is of course several notches more structured and demanding.

I’ll be sharing interesting excerpts from the book over the next few weeks. Here’s one which describes the proper way to chant sutras:

We were taught to “chant with the ears”, not the mouth. The ideas was not to open your book and sing out randomly, but to listen to the voices of others and try to blend in. Even if not used in a particularly musical way, the human voice in combination with others forms a rich tapestry of sound that moves the listener’s heart. Although there was no special melody because of the very simplicity of the vocalization, the slight variations in each voice produced a mysterious resonance with beautiful overtones.

The reading of the sutras has two meanings or purposes. One is to encounter the thought of the founder, a form of reading that closely resembles study. The other is to gain spiritual merit, which is done purely by chanting; questions of meaning and content are secondary in this case. The act of chanting a sutra is considered to have intrinsic merit. The chanting that takes place each morning (at Eiheiji) fall into this category.

[page 73 of Eat Sleep Sit]

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December 10, 2010 at 7:48 am

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