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"

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kyoto Vipassana Meditation Center



"Deep Kyoto friend and contributor Ted Taylor recently completed a two and a half month hike along the Kumano Kodo and the Shikoku 88 temple pilgrimage. Returning briefly to Kyoto before continuing his travels he stopped for ten days at the Kyoto Vipassana meditation center.  Today he sent me a report on his experiences there. Ted writes:

I found myself sharing dormitory space with six other men, none of whom would talk to me.  Which is no surprise really as we`d taken a vow not to speak during the 10 days which make up the Vipassana meditation course.  The Center is about 90 minutes north of Kyoto, at the end of a lovely drive into a remote valley.

The silence part isn`t really the problem (which may surprise those who know me).  It is the sitting:
ten and a half hours a day, split into 90 to 120 minute chunks.  In which to sit, and sit, and sit.  The body begins to fidget and whine like a two year old.  The mind begins to yell “Boring, boring, boring!” like Rick from The Young Ones.  Which is exactly the point.  The goal is to recognize that thoughts and bodily sensations, both positive and negative, are temporary and fleeting.  The only constant is Reality itself, which we`ve lost track of, as we gird ourselves with tasty food, cultural events, and the Internet. (No disrespect intended, Deep Kyoto.)

After the initial orientation session where we listened to a recorded voice telling us the rules (which I quickly dubbed, `The Dharma Initiative`), we mounted our cushions for the first time.  And did little else.  The recording had actually used the phrase, `confine you here`, and it did indeed have the feel of prison:  seemingly unending hours spent staring into space, with the main diversions being tasty meals,  long showers, walks in the yard, and light stretching.  We weren`t however allowed to read, as any reading or writing materials, (plus cameras, iPods, cell phones, etc) were confiscated on the first day.  The only reading allowed was the constant flow of thoughts, most of these being monotonous at that.

The one voice we did hear was that of S.N. Goenka, who created this course.   In the evenings, we watched videos of his dharma lectures, which were thought provoking, witty, and easy to understand.   During the 3 daily one-hour group sittings. we also heard his meditation instructions, which were spoken with a slow, emphatic manner, in this weird Bela Legosi voice, the words trailing off as if the sentences themselves were narcoleptic.  During the other meditation sessions, we had the choice to sit in the main hall, or in our dormitory room.  I found the latter to be greatly beneficial, as we were given permission to stretch our legs, or to lie down for a few moments if we chose.  To do so in the main hall, was noisy and distracting, detracting from one of the goals of the course, which was to pretend that you were doing the course in isolation.  In the true isolation of my room, I found my meditation to be much deeper.

The effects of the course became apparent quickly.  With no distractions, the mind grows quiet, and becomes more equanimous.  You don`t seem to be bothered by your dormmate`s snoring, or by the cold, or by the fact that you don`t get dinner.   And these positive effects remain.  The scenery on the train ride home was a study in beauty.   Every note of the music on my restored iPod was perfect.

With my background in zen and yoga, I do have some issues with the methodology of the course, but I put these aside as best I could and accepted what Vipassana had to offer.   To my  supreme benefit.   I highly recommend this program, though not to the faint of heart (or leg).  This course is the extreme sport of the meditation world, filled with hardship and pain, yet offering great reward.  Though that could just be my mind playing tricks on me.

Kyoto Vipassana Center is located in the north-western part of the prefecture, 90 minutes by train from Kyoto station. To find out more about the Vipassana center, check out their website here. You can read more about Ted’s continuing adventures on his wonderful blog: Notes from the ‘Nog."


On the turntable:  Jerry Jeff Walker, "Christmas Gonzo"



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"