I began to study meditation in Nagasaki Japan thirty years ago. Back in New York, I searched for a “home” zendo or zen center to continue to experience meditation’s spiritual, physical, and even psychological benefits. Here is an overview of the wonderful teachers I’ve found.
Jiho Sargent taught me that we can perceive ourselves without layers of habitual concepts and judgments. A glimpse of unmasked reality can change our ways of viewing and of living our lives. This is what Buddhism calls opening our eyes, or awakening. (Click here for more information on Jiho Sargent, an American Zen priest who presided over a temple in Japan.)
Zen Buddhism meditation is, at its simplest, the practice of “shikan taza,” “zazen,” or “just sitting.” With the sangha I sat kneeling or cross legged on a cushion on the floor. (A chair can be used for a bad back.) I sat upright, with dignity. I tried to quiet my mind, to let thoughts go, to become aware of breath following breath as it gently came and went. Gradually my mind and body became quiet and at ease. The practice may sound easy, but it took me a great deal of work simply to learn to sit correctly. When the right posture came, it just felt right.
The founder of Sotoshu Zen Buddhism, Dogen Zenji (1200 –1253), instructs as follows:
- Let go of all associations and put all affairs side
- Do not think of either good or evil
- Do not be concerned with either right or wrong
- Put aside the operation of intellect, volition and consciousness
- Stop considering things with your memory, imagination, and contemplation
- Do not seek to become Buddha
For a brief introduction to Dogen, click here.
Recently a new focus on compassion “Metta (Loving Kindness) Practice” has been added to traditional Buddhist meditation. Metta begins with cultivating loving kindness towards oneself, then towards loved ones, friends, strangers, enemies, and finally towards all sentient beings. Metta practice moves the practitioner out from the contemplation of self, solely, to the expression of loving kindness towards the entire world.
Onuma Fuminori – a sensei in his 30s and a teacher of Aikido at his northern Manhattan Aikido dojo – uses a unique method of creative realization to teach “Metta” meditation to his students. He explains that we should first sit in zazen, then do as follows:
- Take a moment to set the scene. Envision us, the practitioners, as an orchestra. We are ready to begin to play. It is a special moment in time.
- Envision someone we love and trust, a figure of almost divine loving kindness. She is our conductor. We are the orchestra.
- Reach out to connect with that conductor, that figure of loving kindness.
- Guide your hands to your chest, sending feelings of caring and love to yourself. Then send caring and love outwards to your fellow orchestra members, expressing humility and sincerity. Thank them, and yourself – arrigato gozaimasu (“Thank you” in Japanese).
- Experience the feeling of being soaked in the energy of peace, like a baby soaked in amniotic fluid.
- Rhythmically, and repeatedly, say “May peace prevail on earth.”
- You – the orchestra – have begun to play!
Fuminori sensei (known as Fumi) is a teacher of Aikido. Fumi says that in Aikido we discover the relationship between our physical (martial arts) practice and our inner practice, in meditation. Fumi comments that with the new focus on the concept of loving kindness, he and his students have become very centered on meditation. They believe their practice has radically changed for the better. Aikido is no longer seen simply as a “martial art,” but as a new practice that is filled with loving-kindness.
Buddhist chaplain Rev. Issan Koyama, who is in his 50s, uses meditation at his hospice, working with people at the end of life. Meditation helps him to deal with his own fears and the fears of his patients. Few of his patients know anything about meditation but it gives them emotional fortification to reduce anxiety and pain and to still the heart. Issan says that some think of meditation as way to achieve mental stability. Really, it is about coming back to the present and staying in the moment – which does, in fact, aid in stabilizing thoughts.
Koyama has noted that his practice as a hospice chaplain is really just like meditation. The four stages of interaction prescribed for the caregiver at the end of the patient’s life are simply to be present; to listen; to care for the other; and watch alertly. In effect, he is doing meditation in his practice with his patients, whether it is formally called that or not.
Myoko Terestman originally came to the Village Zendo at a time of depression, seeking consolation, support and relief from back pain. Now, due to maintaining correct meditation posture, awareness, alertness and ease, she experiences much less pain. She has also noticed some powerful inner changes over time – increased quietness of mind and a greater sense of space. Mind and body are not separate – meditation treats them both as one.
A potter in her daily life, she has now meditated for 17 years. She and her fellow Zendo instructors teach mediation in outreach to prisons, street people, those with AIDS and other incurable diseases and those at the end of life. She believes that meditation as a discipline requires a teacher, and a routine consistent study. One needs a guide to deal with thoughts and a “container” – the sangha – the group with whom you meditate. The sangha offers very powerful support.
Sybil Myoshin Taylor of the Village Zendo, has pioneered workshops for people who are aging. Her own experience of aging and physical issues included four surgeries for breast cancer, symptoms of stress, back pain, and a struggle with self-image. Roshi O’Hara, Abbott of the Village Zendo, encouraged her to create workshops where the attendees would learn the Zen simplicity that we are all aging, that we are all dying. And that it is time to let go of our fear. (These workshops are copyrighted by Sybil Myoshin Taylor, 2010.)
Zen teaches that everyone ages from birth. Breath by breath, all is in flux. As the song says, “We are stardust, we are golden” and therefore we are also eons old. It is time to let go of our fear of aging and death. Sybil is also working with Village Zendo’s Roshi Enkyo O’Hara on a post-workshop book with the theme of restructuring your belief system.
All of these teachers have so much to give. For myself, I can say that meditation has proved to be of the most valuable thing in the world.
Main Photo Credit: Luna Vandoorne/ Shutterstock.com