When I was practicing Zazen at Chou-ji (ji is temple in Japanese) in Sapporo Japan many years ago I was surprised at the difficulty of just simply sitting, focusing, and quieting my mind. When you sit Zazen you suddenly realize how much internal dialog we have going on in our minds throughout the day. You have so many things to look forward to, worries about paying the bills, troubles in your relationships, and regrets about the past. You have a constant stream of thoughts that are continuously jumping around like the proverbial mad monkey the Zen stories talk about, leaping from limb to limb. For no reason at all the monkey feels like it cannot just sit quietly in one place, he has to be constantly moving.
After each meditation period we would all get up, without a word being said, and start slowing walking around the room in a circle following the person in front of us. This was not just simply walking, it was more than that. This practice is called Kinhin and there was a very precise way to take each step in these little half step patterns. After so many minutes of this a monk would ring a bell and then you would just sit down and go back to meditating. At first it seemed obvious that one of the purposes of this was to get some blood flowing in your cramped legs after sitting in Seiza (the lotus position) for the past 30 minutes. Another would be to be able to stay in the meditative state that you have hopefully been in for some period of time so that when you sit back down you can begin where you left off so to speak.
I have mentioned many times in my previous blogs that all Buddhist practices are a teaching of the Dharma in and of themselves. Whenever we perform any Buddhist practice we should look for how it may relate to core teachings of Buddhism. When the Buddha set up the monastic system he made daily life of the monks as conducive to understanding the Dharma as possible. It was set up the way it was to strengthen the monks ability to understand their religious training and to aid them on their path to Enlightenment. This is where we in the west may wrongly perceive the prohibition against alcohol, for example, as indicating that the consumption of alcohol was in some way evil. The truth is that alcohol isn’t evil it just isn’t conducive to understanding the Dharma. If you are drunk you have no control of your actions or your mind, both of which are necessary in Buddhist practice. Letting monks drink alcohol would hinder their religious progress and hold them back from their pursuit of understanding the reality that we call Enlightenment.
So while the monks, following the precepts (the Buddhist rules that are accepted voluntarily), sitting in a secluded place meditating will speed up and enhance their religious development ultimately they have to be able to function in the normal world. Later it sort of struck me that Kinhin was also sort of a preparation for this. A way of sitting and mediating, then getting up and walking, and then going back to sitting. This process was repeated over and over until you could maintain the meditative mind regardless of what you were doing.
They added to this practice mindfulness meditation. This is a related practice where you try to pay very close attention to each thing you are doing throughout the day. This is more than simply paying attention as you are concentrating on every single movement you make and the sounds, smells, and sensations to experience while performing what seems as a mundane task. Keeping yourself (mind) constantly in the present moment throughout whatever you are doing.
Although this is a way to practice a form of moving meditation the purpose of this practice is to focus on the present moment you are in. Once again there is a much bigger Dharma lesson here then the act of meditating. Ask yourself why the present moment is so important in Buddhism? The answer is that in Buddhism the present moment is all that exists. Right now in this present moment there is no future, it has not happened yet. When it does it will be the present moment. There is no past, the only place the past exists is in your memory. When those events happened they were the present moment. You may say then if it doesn’t exist how does my friend or family member remember the same thing? Well if you could really see their memory as they see it you would very quickly realize that their memory is not exactly the same as yours. Our memories are based on our individual prejudice and life experiences that shape how we remember a certain event. So in a sense in reality (which is what we are trying to understand) there is only a constant now! This moment. This is not to be confused with the idea that the past never existed or the future will not be, contrary to our obsession with them, they just don’t exist now! They don’t (like our notion of the self) exist the way we generally perceive them to be.
How does this help us in a practical sense? Life is chaos. We are so wrapped up in what happened yesterday and what may happen tomorrow that we rarely even see or experience what is happening right now in this moment. Isn’t that a bit odd that we tend to be missing what is actually happening right now and in our minds would rather stay in the past or the future. We are always dreaming of the way things used to be or wishing that things were some ideal way that we imagine. How does that leave us feeling? Frustrated, unsatisfied, sad, or unhappy, in other words all the feelings that we don’t want to have or are always trying to avoid!
Buddhist practice in my opinion is about understanding reality as it actually is. But as you start to realize these truths this understanding has the side effect of making our lives better. At any given moment you may be worried about a whole variety of things. Your wife may have left you or you didn’t get the promotion you wanted, you may have lost a loved one, or you may be trying to figure out how to pay some bill you have just received. I am not belittling the trauma these types of things can cause someone. But if while you are in the middle of these chaotic events you can stop and focus on the present moment in 99% of the cases you will see that right then in that moment, which is all that exists, you are fine. Right there in that moment, in that place, all the things that you are worried about do not matter. All of these things exist only in your mind. For in that very moment, which is all that exists, you are fine.
It is a survival mechanism that we are concerned about the future and want to remember what we did in the past. This is necessary of course but in the end being in this constant state has the side effect of pulling us farther and farther away from reality where we are usually just living in a dream.