How flexible are your legs? This isn’t a question I’m used to being asked, especially by someone I’ve just met. But when you’re about to try and sit in half lotus for the next 90 minutes, it’s a question worth answering. My response: not very flexible at all. The degree to which this was true would become painfully clear to me.
Last weekend I spent Sunday morning visiting a Zen dojo in Amsterdam. It was my first true experience of Zen. Having read many books and spoken to Zen Buddhists, I thought I had a good idea of what Zen is about. But I also wanted to see if that lined up with reality. As I stepped into the dojo I began to understand that conceptual familiarity and actual experience are not the same things. This would recur throughout my two and a half hour introduction.
If you’re spending time meditating outside of any formal training (be that mindfulness, loving-kindness, Vipassana or otherwise) then this will give you an idea of the difference that visiting some kind of meditation centre can offer. If you’re interested in Zen, then it’s a brief outline of what a dojo is like and why it’s worth visiting one.
I’ve broken up this account into three sections – the first covers the physical space of the dojo itself, the second explores the difference between solo-contemplation and formal meditation while the final section outlines my personal experience of the zen attitude and mindset as I encountered it during this visit.
The entrance to the dojo is marked by a wooden block. After taking your shoes off, visitors, monks and Zen masters alike must enter in the same way – with your left foot first. The precise reason for the left foot was not made clear to me. But it doesn’t matter all that much. What does matter, is that dojo is designed to make you mindful from the moment you step in.
This mindfulness is reflected further by 3 invisible sections (which were kindly made clear by my guide during the orientation) which divide the dojo. During zazen meditation, you’re required to walk through these sections in a clockwise order, always with your left shoulder to the wall. At each corner you make a sharp 90-degree turn, always walking in a straight line. This all sounds a bit complex, but it underscores the purpose of the dojo: to cultivate awareness.
Beyond these guidelines, the space was very simple. White walls and wooden floors were adorned with a few scrolls depicting sutras along with a picture of the Zen master that founded the dojo. In the centre of the dojo lay a small altar and several percussion instruments used to announce different phases throughout the zazen meditation.
On the day I visited, an early autumnal morning, the sun filled the space with light and made it feel welcoming despite the minimal aesthetics. The considered simplicity of the space invites you to move carefully and act calmly. Overall, it inspired a degree of reverence similar to a library and made me feel ready for sitting meditation.
My journey with meditation started as a process of self-discovery. I’ve read a lot, been to workshops, downloaded different apps and generally experimented. The result is a broad understanding of different types of meditation but very little depth with any single meditative tradition. With only a couple of apps for guidance, my practice has bee erratic at times and more consistent at others. But it’s definitely skipped around over the years. Visit the dojo, was in many respects, a means of exploring an alternative to this informal way of meditating.
When you’re practising meditation alone, having little interaction with more experienced practitioners, it’s easy to form bad habits or just get stuck. Guided meditations via an app can be great, especially for sparking your interest. But there’s nothing like having a real person sit with you. The benefits of having 1:1 interaction was clear when several of the monks and attendees corrected my posture or fetched me a larger cushion as I tried to sit in the half lotus. This is invaluable.
Beyond the fact that going somewhere to sit with others allows you to absorb knowledge, there was a seriousness about visiting a dojo to meditate that you can’t replicate easily at home. And I don’t mean seriousness in a po-faced, uptight kind of way. It’s that the rituals and guidelines of the dojo make it clear that we’re all here to do zazen, so there’s a kind of mutual respect that people bring to the practice. Summoning this kind if discipline felt right at the dojo, and isn’t something I’ve ever gotten from firing up headspace at home on my own.
Bare Bones & Passing Clouds
Gyo Kai is a Soto Zen dojo. This means the style of zazen is particularly minimal. My guide described it as ‘bare bones’. Unlike any guided meditation or techniques that use an object of concentration, the Soto style of zazen asks very little of you. You sit with your eyes open, facing a wall. Then you just experience what happens. ‘Let your thoughts pass like clouds in the sky’ I was instructed. And that was about it. Bare bones indeed.
Despite how easy it is to understand, this degree of simplicity requires a high degree of commitment because, in order to do nothing, you have to give everything. That is, in order to just sit down and pay attention you’ve got a lot of hurdles to overcome. You have to give up all your attachments to getting lost in thought. Give up your attachment to complaining about the pain of sitting (more on that in a moment). Give up all your judgements. And then just focus. As you can imagine, this doesn’t happen just because you want it to.
I was, however, given one point of focus, one thing to return to when my mind wandered. Posture is the cornerstone of zazen. Sitting in the half lotus (or in my case, as close an approximation as my legs would allow) with your left hand in your right, thumbs touching, a hollowed back and eyes pointing downwards. You have to be attentive to sit properly. And you have to have some dedication. At different times during the meditation my eyes were itching, my thigh began to twitch and both legs went numb. And there was the pain. Normally I’d immediately attend to these sensations, but in zazen, they’re just part and parcel of everything that’s happening and as such, should just be experienced.
As the zazen session began, I sat in the posture I’d been shown. I’m a naturally shy person so as soon as I’d quietened down my mind began to get busy. Am I doing this right? What do these people think of me? As this drama was playing out in my mind I began to see the movement of the sun across my patch of wall. The autumnal morning shadows of trees outside danced on the white expanse in front of me and for a moment it all fell away. I felt completely calm. Thoughts passed like the clouds reflected on the wall. Then, in another moment, the feeling was gone.
Through The Open Door
Toward the end of our second, and final, meditation, one of the monks shared a quote he’d read recently from Zen Master Suzuki:
“In zazen, leave your front door and your back door open. Let thoughts come and go. Just don’t serve them tea.”
I’d had an interesting morning. No matter how much I read about Zen, there’s no way around the fact that you’ve got to live it. Zen is about doing. Seeing your experience for what it is, as clear as you can, is where it’s at. Opening your doors and refusing to make tea for those thoughts takes some practice too. And the best way to do it consistently is by sitting.
Zen isn’t for everyone. And I’d guess that Soto Zen is for even fewer people. That’s ok. If you do have an interest in any flavour of Zen, or even meditation more broadly then I’d suggest finding a community you can visit and people you can sit with. The thing about contemplative practice is that it takes skill to do. And skills are often best learnt in the presence of someone who’s been practising them for longer than you. I’m just starting down the path of finding a teacher and my visit to the dojo was encouraging. If you find yourself on a similar road, do the same.
As I went to leave, I approached the block that divided the dojo and the hallway outside. I had to stop myself and think – which foot first? Right, then left. I’ll be back to practice that step again.