Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Silent, But Readily

Deep Kyoto has published my write-up on the Vipassana course. What isn't stated in the article is that I didn't finish. Sitting more than 10 hours a day took its toll. I had a few moments the first day where I wondered if I'd make it, yet day two was a tad easier, and I had no doubt that I would stick it out. But my knee had other ideas.

I've been nursing a Baker's cyst for over a year, which had been a nuisance but hadn't limited my activities in any way. But for some reason, last August it began to really hurt, and by mid-month, I had to curb teaching certain yoga poses, could no longer sit seiza. It was fine during the Kumano and Shikoku walks, but hours sitting cross-legged brought about incredible pain.

One of the goals of the Vipassana technique is to realize that pain is fleeting, and will fade eventually if not given too much importance. I could deal with the stiff back and legs, but I thought to ignore an existing medical condition wasn't wise. I decided to watch it and see how it went; pain at the end of the day was understandable, but if I awoke with pain I'd have to reevaluate things.

That morning did come. I continued most of the day in meditation, yet was distracted by incessant thoughts. If I quit, was I weak? That was ego talking. But if I stuck it out to prove something to myself or others, wasn't that ego too? I looked at it from many angles, and found that any action, or its opposing action, were all driven by ego. My feet sank deeper into the sand on the bank of the Rubicon.

I also began to question the reasoning behind such long periods of sitting. Ten hours a day isn't the real issue. Two hour sessions are. To the best of my knowledge, the zen or yoga traditions never sit this long, usually sitting in shorter periods, with breaks or walking meditation between. (One hour zazen sittings aren't unheard of, but I feel that this is less about quality meditation than about 'building character.' Ahem. Within the zen world, I prefer the "Take It Easy" form of Soto to the "Take it to the Limit" style of Rinzai anyway.) I personally find that anything more than 30 minutes is futile. In the Vipassana meditation hall, there would be silence for the first half hour, then the remaining time was a cacophony of shifting bodies. It seemed no one was able to concentrate anymore. What is the point? (I invite anyone who knows the reason to explain it to me.)

The night before I left, I went for a late night pee. Stepping outside, I startled a large animal, which crashed through the forest somewhere out there in the dark. The high pitched bark that followed told me it was a pair of deer, one calling out to its mate. I was inspired to make my own dash. At the Vipassana center we were segregated by sex, and sworn to uphold silence. I spied my wife on her side of the fence, but couldn't get her attention. Unlike the deer, I'd go alone.

On the afternoon of the 4th day, I was standing on the train platform, not sure whether to go west to Yonago or east to Kyoto. A westbound train came in, and I took it. After days of deprivation my senses were alive, finding beauty in every sight, sound, flavor. The peace I'd felt during the course remained. Yet something nagged. My escape to freedom was a move in the complete opposite direction from what the Buddhists define as 'liberation.' I felt I'd made the right choice regarding the knee, but had the knee given my ego an excuse to get out of a very challenging situation? I continued to beat myself up as the train moved slowly along the Sea of Japan...

On the turntable: King Curtis, "Live at the Fillmore West"
On the nighttable: David Foster Wallace, "Girl with Curious Hair"

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Feet Up

Off the road for a few days. We traced the distended belly of the Kinki Region, where it juts proudly into the Pacific, walking 300+ km along the Kii-ji, Nakahechi, and Ōhechi sections of the Kumano Kodo. Like the Japanese expression, "Hara Hachi-bunme," we pushed back from the table and saved the Ise-ji for leftovers.

Then a couple nights at Koya, which has become perhaps my favorite place in country, this almost alpine town with Buddhas, lots and lots of Buddhas. Oku-no-in at dawn is pure magic. It was here that we bowed to Kobo Daishi and asked him to watch over us as we walked his footsteps.

Shikoku 88. The guidebooks differ, but we walked somewhere between 1200 and 1400 km in 39 days. Maybe 90 percent of it over asphalt. Lots and lots of asphalt. A week finished and my feet still wake me with their complaining. Yet I can't think of a better way to see this country, on foot and sleeping out, fully susceptible to both the kind hospitality and the hostile looks.

In an attempt to disprove the laws of inertia, we will now arrest this motion and take part in a Vipassana retreat north of Kyoto, looking for a remedy for restless minds and aching feet.

(And for grateful stomachs, here is an article that I published over at Deep Kyoto in September. Bon Appetit!)

On the turntable: Jeff Buckley, "Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk"
On the nighttable: E. Annie Proulx, "Postcards"