Monday, April 11, 2005

The Form of Meditation

Easter weekend I sat a 1-day Zen sesshin at the Shao Shan meditation center in East Calais, Vermont. Taihaku Gretchen Priest, who is an ordained Roshi in the Soto Zen tradition, founded the center and led the retreat. Shao Shan is a cozy practice center, built in the Japanese style. One interesting feature is that it does not have electricity. This appears to facilitate a very peaceful atmosphere. Most of my sitting practice has been in the Vipassana, Theravada Buddhist tradition, and I have done little in the Zen tradition. In Zen, the custom is to sit facing the wall with the eyes open gently and gazing at the wall. There is emphasis on the sitting posture -- erect with the fingers of the left hand resting over the right hand with palms facing the upwards, and the tips of the thumbs touching forming a bridge. There is a dignity and discipline to sitting in this way. We sat in cycles of 40 minutes sitting meditation followed by 10 minutes of walking. This is an atypical schedule. Most sesshins have 2.5 hour sitting intervals. The strict emphasis on form brings a different flavor to practice. I noticed that my seat -- the physical and psychological posture of sitting was more prominent. I recently read about a Zen practitioner named Tenkai (in the book, The God Gene). When asked what he does when he meditates, he said, “I sit.” When pressed for details, he again stated, “I sit.” Having sat in Zen, and experiencing the emphasis on form, I can understand this comment. Sitting and the seat (see “seat” in the explore mindfulness section) have an added meaning. Indeed, Taihaku provided little in the way of instructions or guidance throughout the day, with the exception of items of protocol and etiquette. I found this emphasis on form refreshing, and I have noticed a renewed emphasis on form in my daily sitting since the retreat. I always deemphasize the physical posture when teaching meditation to my patients and participants in mindfulness-based stress reduction classes. I have found that too rigid of an emphasis on external forms can make approaching initial practice forbidding. With experience though, putting energy into form can be facilitative. One evening after clinical practice, I was sitting in the studio alone. I usually sit in a half-lotus posture. This evening, I slipped into a full lotus and sat this way for nearly the entire 40 minutes I meditated. It was unusual to be so relaxed for so long in the full lotus.

Zen has two main branches: Soto and Rinzai. To simplify, Soto aims for a gradual awakening and Rinzai a more abrupt and sudden awakening. Rinzai more heavily relies on Koan practice and strict discipline such as being struck by a stick to remain awake and sitting erect through extended practice. There are close to 1 million pages on Zen to be found on the Internet, and any google search can keep you entertained for hours. To reach the Shao Shan Spiritual Practice Center, please call 802.456.7091. Taihaku will be in Japan during April and May, and there will be no programs. There is also a Zen Center in Shelburne Vermont.


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