I was still in England when I got interested in Zen Buddhism. I was impressed by Zen and Japanese culture written by Daisetz Suzuki Roshi. This was a very influential work in disseminating Buddhist culture to the western reader. It was so different from anything I had read before and gave a more “intellectual” grasp of the practice if such a thing were possible. I had experienced some meditation over the years and involvement in it steadily increased when I arrived in San Diego. However, it was as Uchi Deshi that the participation took on a fuller meaning as Chiba Sensei put a lot of emphasis on this system of practice. He was in fact ordained as a lay Buddhist in one of the main sects. I had met his Roshi in England during the summer camps I had attended. It was at these camps that meditating and Q and A with him gave a slightly better picture of the practice. There was something compelling about martial art, particularly the sword work whether it is bokken work or Iaido and when packaged seamlessly with Zen. It gave it a richness, a mystique and an aesthetic which resonated with me in many ways.
During my time as Uchi Deshi in the San Diego dojo, we were required to join in sitting meditation on a regular bases. These intensives were held at least twice a year and a 71/2 day major retreat in Seattle once a year (this duration is symbolic of Buddhist practice). I was involved with all of these bar the week long retreat, but that’s another story.
Meditation a la zen is tough very tough. It hurts particularly if you are in the middle of an intensive Aikido training program. In 1991 the first experience of a weekend of this hardship began. It was rise and shine before the birds had even begun to chirp by 4.30am and ready to go after barely 4 hours of sleep. These lovely weekends were lead by the vice-abbot of a Seattle based zen school. The Abbott and head of this temple trained since the age of 11 in one of the most famous monasteries in Japan. The practice was severe, austere and very much in line with Chiba Sensei’s raison d’être. Zen is regimented which appeared to contradict the spontaneous qualities it often referred to. Everyone was lined up in two or more rows depending on the numbers. The lights were dimmed, the smell of incense ever present all helped create the atmosphere. Bells and gongs were used at specific times and signalled the beginning and end of each session. Sessions that for me could not end soon enough. The duration of these sitting meditations depended on the speed the incense stick would burn at and the judgement of the vice Abbott. He was, much to my ire, well aware of each of us and where we were in our state of mind. My state of mind was “ring that fucking bell you son of a ………” I am sure I wasn’t alone in this.
Why is sitting in this fashion so difficult, you might ask? Imagine this. Spine long and upright. Backside sitting on a pillow while both knees settle on the floor creating a stable triangle. From here the left hand lays on top of the right and the tips of your thumbs lightly making contact. The hands rest against your body and just below the navel. That’s the body aspect, the physical side. Now the breath. Breath in and out each time counting until you reach 10 and then start again. As you breath let your mind , your thoughts pass with no attachment to them. That’s it that’s all you have to do. This is how I got to “understand” the practice of sitting in the tradition of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
As the senior student, I selected my position next to Chiba Sensei on the first of these occasions. This decision proved to be a challenging one, what was I thinking…? For what was a huge challenge to not move, to exhibit a mountain like presence, immovable, settled, unshakeable; there was the challenge of the Aikido masters dynamic presence. It didn’t take me long to pick up on the nuclear fire burning inside him. Hot, intense, angry and for the record it never switched off.
The Zen experience was something that I find impossible to describe. I want to say incredible, extraordinary and profound. I want to say life affirming and life changing but in the end, none of these descriptions were relevant or accurate. It was what it was. Dealing with it at each and every turn.
We were all advised to not just grit our teeth and survive it. That is not holding out for an end as the end will come when it comes and not when you want it. Do your best to let go, come back to your body, your breath and your mind. This would be hard to achieve under the best of circumstances but add to this a bunch of people who are dedicated to moving in the extreme and to call it oxymoronic is an understatement.
Yet there is a type of logic amongst all this strange, exotic and quite ritual laden activity. In motion a passivity, a stillness was desirable, demanded by the intensity of our training. Aikido can be noisy, technical and active. On the other hand, Zen when one reached a certain stage was more attuned to that passivity and presumably would assist, accompany or become a part of the constant movement in Aikido. Stillness in motion, motion in stillness and so on. What did I need to work through to find some of this? Avoid fidgeting, relax the mind even though it was preoccupied with many thoughts, those thoughts are mine, and mine alone. Then sleep would follow, with your body eventually slumping with loss of posture and then like magic the wonderful kyozaku would appear from the blue. A long flat piece of wood used to slap you on the shoulders and shock you back to the here and now.
In between these sittings was meditation while walking in a circle around the dojo. The aim to keep, that same state of mind until you return and sit again until lunch, until dinner, until bedtime. Like everything else, meals were also regimented and suitable for the meditation. For god sake no stodgy food here. No heavy meats or rich food. That was asking for trouble as the body would furiously work overtime to digest. You feel it all and believe me, it’s not pleasant. Emptiness is the requirement here. Let the senses perceive, wake up your core essence and float on your pillow.
There were 3 more of these intensives before my departure a couple of years later. I didn’t sit next to Chiba Sensei again as he charmingly reminded me ” too hot to handle hey?” Yes too hot but I did well and I didn’t, I don’t know. Maybe the zen experience was in fact exactly that, very zen. It was what it was.