SESSHIN (5-DAY RETREAT) – MIRROR ZEN

2022: 100 days resolution meditation practice

How many days would you give to yourself if you were to learn a new skill? And, how long would you need to develop a healthy habit?

When we practise something for an extended period of time, not only we become good at what we practise, but we also make that practice a habitual element in our life. It becomes part of what we do on a daily basis without having to think about that. In this way, we can develop healthy habits and, by the same token, we can undo unhealthy ones. All it takes is perseverance, courage and mindfulness.

All you need is some reflection

Developing the habit of practising meditation regularly works exactly in this way. You have to patiently build it day by day, with diligence, with resilience and curiosity, with kindness and care. Then, one day, without thinking about it, you find yourself sitting effortlessly on the cushion to explore your inner world, to contemplate your own mind, to simply be present with your thoughts.

The benefits of meditation are numerous. One can easily browse the internet and read tons of scientific reports and articles talking about that. I must say that I have never had the patience to read through many of these reports but, I rather trusted the process and what this process would bring by just observing the people around me who were already meditators. I could see the quality of their actions, their presence when they listened or when they spoke. There was something in them that I wanted to have too and, a part of me was telling that those qualities were the fruit of their meditation practice. That was for me a first hand indication of how meditation and mindfulness were effectively working. Somehow, I could tell that practising meditation and mindfulness was healthy for the body, for the mind and could also have a beneficial effect on people around us. That is what I found out myself during my years of practice.

How many sand grains to make a beach?

At times, I struggled to keep my practice going. I experienced a few periods when I even stopped meditating just to find out how things would, in general, feel rougher, I would feel more irritable and less patient. Then, I would start over again until the practice would become again a regular healthy habit. Every time I stopped it, it took me a while to bring the practice back to its ‘habit status’. What I would do was to set targets, perhaps committing for a month, or for a season or for 3 full moons period. I would just set a period of time in which I intended to sit every day. Every time, it worked perfectly well and I would get my practice back to its ‘habit status’.

Sitting for 100 days in a row, seems to be an ideal amount of time to build a solid habit, to turn something that you are perhaps doing occasionally into something that becomes regular in your daily schedule. It can easily be compared to brushing teeth, it is something that you do without thinking, it just feels right to do it and if you were not doing it, it would feel somehow odd.

The beginning of the year seems to be the perfect period to set a resolution. I guess that, as humans, we love to set goals and targets and perhaps, when a new year starts we see in that the opportunity to focus on something we want to change or, on something new to explore. It seems that the new brings new energy, new vitality and determination, that’s great!

For the beginning of 2022, I am going to set my own resolution which is to consolidate my meditation practice and I’d love to invite anyone reading these words to do the same. It is very simple once we set a strong intention to do it. Just start the new year with this strong resolution to meditate for 100 days in a row, doing your very best not to miss a single day. It can be fun to see how all kind of resistances will appear to the surface of your mind. My suggestion here is to be curios and just explore with an open mind, you now have 100 days to become more and more familiar with that and to learn how to respond to these resistances.

When I run my mindfulness and meditation courses, I always set this target for the people attending to sit for 100 days straight. After the 100th day, we meet and see how things have been. In general, some people struggle more than others but, it is nice to hear all of the participants talking about the benefits of this long ‘meditation run’. I remember when I first set this target for myself, I would keep count of the days, I would make sure I would not miss a single one and would use all kind of strategies to make sure I would go straight to the final goal. I had my diary where I would write about my meditation and I had reminders set on my phone to make sure I would sit at least once before the end of the day. It was a nice experiment into understanding my own mind, my own blockages, my highs and my lows. I could easily see how the mind can become the best or the worst friend in a matter of seconds. All I had to do was to allow my attention to follow the stream of thoughts and, my energy, my mood, my perception of the world would change accordingly. When that is seen clearly, I could start discerning a little bit more my own thoughts. I realised that I could let go of them, I realised that they didn’t need my full attention, I realised that they had a life on their own which is completely separate from my own. When we spend so many days in a row exploring this, it really becomes natural to have a better understanding of our own mind, our own mental patterns, which life situations trigger certain reactions, which situations make us angry and which situations make us happy. In other words, we tune into our mental unit and see what is healthy and what is less healthy in there. We see more clearly which mental circuits bring happiness and which ones bring misery. It is like becoming an IT expert of our own computer set; our mind. We start working on our hardware and see which parts need substituting, which parts need some reconfiguring and which parts are actually fine the way they are. Who would not want to have the best possible mental unit that could bring us lots of happiness?

As for all things people achieve in life, reaching the 100 days meditation resolution practice will have an amazing impact on your life. And, of course, it will allow to develop a solid healthy habit to meditate regularly. All you need to do is to give it a go and be curious about the whole process. Then something at the mental level will change. This is called Neuroplasticity which, to go back to the hardware analogy, can be compared to the reconfiguration of some of our mental circuits. In fact, our mind is made up of millions and millions of circuits which determine our behaviour, our reactions and responses to situations. When we bring mindfulness to these circuits, we somehow have an effect on them. We start seeing how we behave mechanically in certain situations. We clearly see how the stimulation of certain circuits have developed fixed mental patterns which make us behave in a certain way rather than in others. When mindful of this process, we can start responding to situations more consciously and, as a consequence of that, we start developing new circuits, new mental patterns. In this way, we can change old unhealthy habits into new healthy ones. Old circuits get undone and new ones are created. Without realising it, we start acting differently, in a healthier way. All we need to do is to bring a certain level of mindfulness to our unconscious mind, see what arises all the time and be patient enough to observe that without impulsively and mechanically reacting to what the unconscious part of our brain is ‘offering’ to us. If rather than reacting unconsciously to life situations, we take time for a more conscious and healthy way to respond to them, we begin to change patterns, we begin to modify our circuits. In other words, we can change the way we perceive the world and the way we live in it. All it takes is perseverance, courage and mindfulness.

The mind can be an excellent servant but a terrible master. Developing a meditation practice habit will help us to ’employ’ this excellent servant and will allow us to find the way to dismiss the terrible master. 100 days, give it a go to see whether this is the time it takes to learn this skill and to develop this healthy meditation habit.

On Tuesday January the 4th at 7pm, I will run an ONLINE drop-in meditation session where we can better explore this 100 days meditation New Year’s resolution. Please feel free to join this Zoom meeting below
https://zoom.us/j/9981048293

Meeting ID: 998 104 8293

Password: 554852

The session will last around 45 minutes and is FREE OF CHARGE

Feel free to get in touch with me at rbonaiti72@yahoo.it for any queries you might have about the session

Zenways

In October 2018, I attended a course to learn to teach meditation and mindfulness. In October 2018, I attended a course to learn to teach meditation and mindfulness. The course was run by an organisation called Zenways, more specifically, the course was run by one of its members, Seán Collins. The course lasted for a week and I knew, at the end of it, that things would not be the same as before. A major change happened during that week I spent in Forest Row where the course took place. I felt like I gained tons of confidence in myself and in what I could do from then on. Of course, little I knew back then, that the journey would be long (actually the journey, I feel, never ends) at times it can feel arduous and other times it feels enjoyable. I was basically starting to realise a little bit more about myself and how the mind functions. How it, the mind, had power when it came to perceive things in and out of myself. The mind says that something is good, then I act accordingly. The mind says that something is bad, then I act differently. Throughout the life, the mind has built a storehouse of good things and bad things and one acts in accordance to this storehouse, attracted by the good things and repulsing the bad things. So, what changed during that week? It is very difficult to describe it exactly in words but, one way to put it, is that I found the neutral place. The neutral place is a mental awakening that sees things as they are and not as they are determined by the conditioned mind, by the storehouse of good things and bad things. It is a clearer way of seeing things, unfiltered, direct.  New potentials seems to be at the horizon.

In the weeks to come after the course, emotions started to pour. It seemed that things inside me started to disentangle and were being freed somehow. As they freed themselves, they would manifest in tears and, I would find myself crying and crying. No sad crying, no happy crying either, just crying. Beautiful and liberating. I could easily observe all of this outpour in a way which I would define detached. It was definitely happening but not happening to someone in particular, it was just happening. And, of course, it goes without saying that when one becomes detached from the inner turmoils, they don’t get so caught and so enslaved by them. I have learned with time that when I am not attached to what it is going internally, I don’t suffer, I can see what is going on without being overwhelmed by it. I guess that I started to have a first hand experience on how meditation and mindfulness worked in practice, I am not sure, I am just guessing here. Before then, I had lots of theory in my mind and by practice meditation regularly I was experiencing the array of benefits that meditation can offer; feeling calmer, being kinder, being more patience and so on. Now, I was starting to enjoy a different way to relate to myself and to things and/or people that were around me.

Going back to Zenways now. I found out about Zenways because some time before I read a book by Daizan Roshi called Practical Zen: Meditation and Beyond.

I remember I enjoyed the book very much and got attracted, among other things, by the fact that Daizan run an organisation or Sangha, a community where people practiced Zen Buddhism, I’d wanted to join that. I had never explored Buddhism before and I knew very little (nothing) about Zen either. I soon wanted to know more about them, Buddhism and Zen so after the course in Forest Row, I joined Zenways. My guess is that my ‘opening’ which occurred during the week of the course, lead me straight to go to the source of what I believed caused this opening in the first place. Perhaps a sense of gratitude, curiosity, excitement.

I joined Zenways and wanted to meet Daizan as soon as I could so I went down to the dojo in London, Campberwell, and finally met him. I went to speak to him in a private meeting which in the Zen tradition is called Sanzen. In these meetings, Zen students can tell their teacher about their practice, normally, but not only that. I remember that all I could tell Daizan was ‘thank you!’ or something along those words. I just wanted to convey my gratitude for the ‘shift’ or ‘opening’ that happened just a couple of months before.

Daizan, myself and my wife Amy on our wedding day

From that moment onwards, I got more and more involved with Zenways and their activities. Becoming a member of Zenways, means becoming a Zen student. Becoming a Zen student, in this case, meant to study Zen or to practice Zen under the supervision of Daizan. That is what I did, I started practicing Zen which meant, in my case, having a daily meditation sitting or two daily meditation sittings. Also, I started reading the vast Zen literature which has really been helping me to understand or, try to understand, where or what all the Zen masters of the past and present point at. It does feel right to say that all this practice, reading, applying mindfulness and so on started to develop a Zen mind or no-mind, whatever that means.

Also, little by little, I realised that Zen can be practised in an endless number of ways. All activities we find ourselves involved in, can be used to practice Zen and, possibly, the first and still to me, most important lesson has been that, when doing something, do it totally, become the action, be totally available, wholeheartedly. By becoming one with the action, one is no concerned with what is going on in the mind (likes, dislikes, resistances and so on) but they become just concerned with what is necessary to do. As I heard many times, we break down that wall of separation which makes us feel separate from the universe, makes us feel a separate entity, a ‘struggling’ entity, a ‘fighting’ entity, a tiny entity that is about to be crashed by the universe. Zen, in my own understanding, helps us to see that this split, this separation is just illusory, it is created by our own mind, by the storehouse of ‘good things’ and ‘bad things’. In reality, we are part of the moving universe, we are that universe in fact. The self and this idea of a separate self is an empty idea, no real. It stays together because of our habitual way of thinking about ourself and the rest. Little by little, this understanding or knowing becomes experiential but, I still have to work hard at times to bypass the habitual mind which do not allow me to see this Truth. It is a constant reminding myself of this, moment to moment, no split, no separation, just acting as required by the situation.

This is in a nutshell, the training that I have been doing with Zenways. There is more than this but for me at the moment, this is the core teaching/practice. Also, in these years with Zenways, I realised why it is called Zenways. The reason is very simple, there are many ways to practice Zen, not only one. Zen can be practiced whilst walking, working, running, speaking, looking into a mirror, working with a Koan…… Zen is no separation in the many different ways we manifest our presence in action. And then, of course, Zen would not allow any definition of Zen……

Rinzai Gigen

A few years ago, I went to India for a meditation retreat at the Osho International Meditation Centre and my accommodation happened to be in a building called Rinzai as in the famous Rinzai Gigen founder of the Rinzai school of Zen. Whilst I was there, as part of the meditation practice, I participated in the Osho Evening Meeting where people danced, celebrated life and sat in silent meditation. In between this dancing, celebrating life and meditating, they would stream discourses by Osho and, as it happened, in that very period they played talks in which the Indian mystic Osho spoke about Zen Master Hyakujo. I became so intrigued by all these Zen stories and the paradoxes which they all have that I carried on exploring what Zen was all about. That was basically my first connection with Zen.

Months later, whilst still exploring Zen and trying to find out a little bit more about Rinzai Gigen, I came across a book by an English Zen Master, his name is Daizan Roshi. I read his book and I was caught straight away by its practicality, simplicity and ‘just-do-it’ attitude in it. Also, there was another thing that attracted me there, the fact that Daizan was based in London, not far from where I live, and he was/is running a very active and thriving community in the Rinzai tradition of Zen. It felt like I was closing a circle and I was somehow coming home to something that, perhaps I had been looking for some time. A strong sense of intuitive trust arose in me after meeting a few members of this organisation called Zenways and I joined them, becoming a student of Zen in the Rinzai tradition.

It has to be said that there are 2 major schools of Zen, one is called Sōtō Zen and the second one is called Rinzai Zen. Both these schools, as well as another smaller Zen school called Ōbaku-shū, have been helping people to come out of the entanglement of their own mind, to clearly see their mental delusions and to enable them to embrace reality as it is. It is a mammoth task that can feel at times overwhelmingly impossible. Seeing beyond the filters of our own mind and straight into reality is challenging, especially at the beginning of this journey or training. I am sure that Rinzai Gigen had his own share of difficulties before he managed himself to see through his own delusions and was able to pass on his own ‘discoveries’ to others. However, again I can only guess here, he persevered in his own practice and reached a point in his own development where he could start sharing his discoveries. It is just amazing to think that, more than 1000 years on, his teachings are still available to anyone who wants to follow his path of liberation.

Japanese painting of Linji Yixuan (Jap. Rinzai Gigen).

The picture above depicts Linji Yixuan, Rinzai Gigen. As already mentioned, he was the originator of the Linji school or Rinzai school. He lived in the years ‘800 basically 1200 years ago and, again, I find it astonishing that his teachings, his methods, his ways to help people seeing into their true nature has somehow reached me. A journey which lasted more than 1000 years. That I find fascinating! How many people Rinzai Gigen had to ‘touch’ in order for his teachings to come down to this generation of people? And, what is the teaching that Rinzai Gigen passed on to future generations of Zen practitioners?

I am sure that each one of the people that have been touched by Rinzai Gigen teachings would have a different answer to this question and obviously I have my own one. Zen practice is to create conditions in which we train our mind to be present with what we are doing, present with how things are. Very easily our mind can get distracted by a thought, by a desire to have things differently than they are, by an inner commentary, by judgements and so on. This split between what is in front of us and the mind going off somewhere else can be somehow closed; the mind can be trained to be on the job at hand. Zen practice, among other things, can train people to close this split, to develop the habit to merge or to become one with the activity we are doing. So, in the Rinzai branch of Zen, there are different kind of trainings that can help people closing the split. That is one thing that I realised very soon. In fact, the community I am part of is called Zenways which one could read as different ways to practice Zen.

Here to follow is a list of the different practices that I have done myself since I became a Rinzai Zen student. Zazen, or sitting meditation is the one which occupied the majority of my time practising. kinhin or walking meditation. Zen calligraphy, Zen running, Samu or working meditation, Koan practice, Sanzen which is a private meeting with a Zen Master or Zen teacher, Haiku which is a form of poetry, chanting, serving meals, all night meditation, Dyad practice, mountain walking retreat, and lots of energetic practices called Naikan. I am sure that I have forgotten something in this list and I will try to speak about all these practices and my experience with them individually in other future posts.

Is that not fascinating? To have a myriad of different ways to practice, to train our mind to see that split which I mentioned above and to close, as best as one can, this split. I personally find it very fascinating as, during my short time spent training with all these different methods, these have shown/still showing me the split, the resistances, the mind tricks and traps that make me suffer, fear, avoid, run from reality and so on. Developing mindfulness and becoming more and more aware of the way I act, react and interact with life is fundamental if I want to, at least try to be my best possible me.

I am not totally sure whether Rinzai Gigen himself started all these practices in his school. Most likely, they have been developed by other Zen Masters along the way. For example, I know that the Naikan practices have been introduced by Hakuin Ekaku who lived much later compared to Rinzai Gigen. However, I somehow feel a strong connection with Rinzai Gigen as I first ‘met’ him in India and I now see him everywhere.

Buddhism

There is a statue of the Buddha in my living room, it is part of a small altar that I set up to remind myself of my practice. A small statue of a laughing Buddha sits next to it to remind myself not to take myself too seriously. It is a decoration and it looks beautiful but, it is mainly a statement I have made to myself about the meditation path I have decided to commit to. The serenity transpiring from the Buddha statue and the laughter shown by the laughing Buddha are very inspiring in my life.

The statue of the Buddha and the laughing Buddha in my living room

When I joined Zenways, little I knew about Buddhism. Now, 3 years after, I can’t really remember what I knew about Buddhism back then. Let me try to remember. One thing I knew was that the Dalai Lama was the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism. I remember to have always loved his smile and the fact that this smile appeared to be different from the smile I had seen in other religion leaders. That was, at least, the way I perceived it. I also knew that Buddhism was a very peaceful religion and that I also liked very much because I have never liked certain kind of mindless confrontations. I also knew that Buddhism was very popular in Asia and, in all honesty, I didn’t know of any Buddhist centres in Italy (now I know there are many). However, one thing I knew about Italy and Buddhism is that the most popular Italian football player was/is a Buddhist practitioner, Roberto Baggio. I always admired Roberto Baggio as a football player but never tried to find out why he became a Buddhist. Baggio’s football career was marked by the many physical injuries he had. However, despite the seriousness of the injuries, he always came back to do what he loved the most, playing football. I remember him to say that practising meditation and Buddhism played a major part in all these difficult comebacks he had. Now, Baggio’s perseverance and desire to come back after every time he fell, reminds me of the Japanese proverb “Nana korobi, ya oki” which means “Fall down seven times, stand up eight.” I learned myself, in these years of practising meditation, how to allow ‘failures’, hardship and difficulties into my life and my practice and how, in spite of that, to just keep going, just stand up one more time and pick it up once again. Resilience, perseverance and discipline are some of the characteristics that the practice of meditation develops and strengthens. Now, going back to what I knew about Buddhism, when I first met my-then-future-wife, she told me about her connection to Buddhism. First of all, she is from Vietnam which is what we can consider a Buddhist country. Secondly, her grandfather was a Buddhist monk so she had that direct connection to this religion or practice. Despite this connection, we never really got to speak in ‘depth’ about Buddhism. We have always spoken about spirituality and meditation in general but never specifically about Buddhism. So, in other words, when I joined Zenways and I started my journey with Buddhism I started from zero. Well, after all, where else one can start a journey if not from 0 anyway?

Zen ensō 

After joining Zenways, I started reading books on Buddhism, I watched videos, I went through all of Daizan’s talks and little by little I became more acquainted with the Buddhist practice and philosophy. What became evident from the beginning was the fact that I didn’t have to believe anything in particular; there was not a God to worship and there were not strict rules to follow. I, alone, would take responsibility for my practice and for the way I would conduct my life. I didn’t have to confess my sins, I didn’t have to pray to obtain forgiveness, I didn’t have to rely on someone else to go to heaven or to hell. I was doing this on my own. After a few months, I took the Buddhist precepts which I will talk about in another post. The contrast with Catholicism which is the religion of my youth was very clear. Somehow, in Catholicism the attention goes outwards, towards God. With Buddhism, the attention goes inwards, towards oneself. ‘Turn the light and make it shine inward’, is one of the meditation instructions I heard a few times. Learn about yourself and see whether that learning can make you become a better and more useful person. It became very apparent how Buddhism was not really a religion as one might conventionally think of one. Buddhism is more an exploration into the human conditions, more particularly, the mental conditions. It is an exploration into what conditions us to act, behave, react and move about in our life in the way we do. And, after seeing what conditions us more and more clearly for ourselves, we can start working on developing healthier ways of living peacefully with ourselves and with others. Personally, in these few years of practice, I got to understand why I just shy away from certain situations, why I have prejudices, why I get nervous when exposed to certain people or situations, why I get upset, angry and so on and so forth. Buddhism, for me, has been an exploration into seeing clearly the reality of my own conditions and, into seeing how these conditions can be transformed for my own benefit and for the benefit of all. I really found this very fascinating. My life has been transformed into an experiment where everything becomes a situation to explore. Life like a laboratory where I devote my time to experiment in order to find the best possible me. But how this exploration starts? 

The start is in the first teaching of the Buddha, life is suffering. That sounds a bit harsh and very naturally, I wanted to understand what the Buddha meant by that. After all, my life is what I would consider a happy life; I have all I need to have to live a very decent and satisfying life. So, what is this suffering that the Buddha is talking about? The first thing that the Buddha refers to, in my understanding, is the contrast between how life really is and how the mind would, many times, desire it to be. Talking personally, I can frequently observe a flow of thoughts, ideas, perceptions and so on that are geared towards wanting things to be different from how they really are. Let me explain. For instance, a thought about someone might pop into my head, it follows a story about this person and, as a result, I start acting or reacting towards this person in a certain way. Internally, there are now all the conditions for a certain degree of uneasiness when this person is around. This is the first sign of suffering; I am suffering when confronted by this person because of my prejudices, my ideas about her/him, what I think of her/him. As a result, I now might want this person to act differently, to think differently, to talk to me differently and so on. I suffer or, I am unsatisfied with this person because I want things to be different from how they really are. Now, this imaginary person is just an example to show how this suffering can appear in us and condition our life. In reality, this suffering or sense of unsatisfactoriness can be triggered by many different things such as all kind of life events, workplace matters, ourselves or the way we perceive ourselves and many, many other things. All can create the conditions for this inner turmoil since there is suffering in birth, in death, in illnesses, in marriages and so on and so forth. We can easily end up fighting the reality of everything and, our desire to want things different from they really are is the cause of our suffering. So, what can we do about that? Shall we keep fighting until we get all things the way we want them to be? Shall we always blame other people for our own suffering/unsatisfactoriness or, can we take some responsibility for it? What Buddhism practice can do to help us alleviating or eliminating altogether this suffering? After all, things are not going to change easily the way we want, people are not going to change either, life situations will still happen in the way they are meant to happen. However, in spite of this, the Buddha says that there is a way out of this suffering. 

The Buddha proposes some friendly advises that will help us to develop some qualities which will allow us to alleviate or to eliminate our suffering. That is a good news. We can start seeing for ourselves what a healthy approach to the reality of things is and what is not. In my own experience, I could see that little by little, I was starting to align, at times with effort, to a healthier approach to reality. The mental fight to want things differently was becoming an option I could skip. It has become clear that it is my responsibility to allow this alignment to happen. Anyway, back to the friendly advises the Buddha has for us.

The first of these advises is to have a more skilful way of seeing things as they are, directly, not through the filter of our mind but, see things really. He is prompting us to deliberately observe how our mind can corrupt and condition our view of reality; just spend a few minutes to observe that for yourself with honesty and determination and you will see that very clearly, even after a short while. Observe the ‘monkey mind’. I heard that expression many times. The ‘monkey mind’ is the mind that can’t stay in one place for more than one second, it is the mind that constantly jumps from one thought to another one, from one idea to another one. It is the mind that sees all that is going on within itself and plays around with all that stuff. The Buddha carries on with his friendly advises and asks us to develop the skill of mindfulness. Can we keep observing what is going on in our mind without getting sucked in? Can we just be mindful of that? If we can do that, we can easily see how thoughts are impermanent. We can easily see how they constantly change and, we can easily observe that when left alone, these thoughts just move on. In other words, with practice and patience, we see more and more where the problems lie. Normally, we act or react far too quickly as a consequence of all our thoughts, ideas, emotions which cross the sky of our consciousness. The Buddha is inviting us to slow down, to observe first, to learn a little bit more about our own mental patterns and then, only after some time of observation, do our very best to respond to situations. Taking time to observe what is going on, externally and internally. What emotions, what thoughts, what instincts certain situations are provoking. How wisely can we balance the whole situation so that we do not cause any more suffering for ourselves and for others? What is there in the situation that can teach us a bit more about ourselves and the way our own mind works? Slowing down, taking time to observe, that is for me the first powerful advise I am taking from the Buddha. It is a way to learn to become more skilful in our actions and, we can become more skilful in our actions when we learn how to become more mindful of our own mind and its content. How can I be more skilful when I speak to people? What kind of job should I do which won’t create more suffering for myself and for others? Can I use my energy more skilfully? How more skilfully can I direct my intentions to become a kinder and wiser person? 

The Buddha is inviting us to take some time to see for ourselves what makes us suffer, why life is suffering. And then, very compassionately, it gives us his friendly advises on how to end this suffering. 

It takes practice, it takes time, it takes patience, it takes a certain level of determination and commitment to be a Buddhist. We have to work with our own shit, nobody else can do it for us and that can be, at times, very difficult. Buddhism is an opportunity for growth, it is an opportunity to ‘unbury’ our truest Self that has been buried under layers and layers of social conditionings, it has been buried deep into our habitual mental patters. In fact, the same patterns that have allowed us to survive and to function in life as human species. Our practice, the experiment we go through is one of the paths to find this truer Self again. This Self is still here, it has not gone anywhere. We have just grown used to use a different self, a more egotistical self that doesn’t allow us to see things how they really are and, that make us and others suffer. Buddhism is a practice that prompts us to revert this tendency and encourages us to find once again this forgotten Self. We train ourselves so that we can see It again and then, little by little, we can start acting again as It. 

When I walk in my living room, I always look at the serenity transpiring from the statue of the Buddha and the laughter in the laughing Buddha’s face. They keep inspiring me to remain calm, to be patient and yet rigorous in my own practice. Very importantly, they remind me to keep smiling.

Rohatsu

On Tuesday the 7th of December, I went to London, to the Zenways dojo in Camberwell to attend Rohatsu. Rohatsu is a Japanese word which literally means 8th day of the 12th month, 8th of December in other words. This is the day that Buddhists celebrates the day the historical Buddha experienced enlightenment, he realised his true nature and the nature of his own mind. 

In the Zen tradition, that day is celebrated by spending the entire night meditating. So, we started at around 9.30 in the evening of the 7th with a talk by Daizan and we finished the following morning at 6. For the entire night, we alternated 25 minutes of sitting meditation sessions with 10 minutes sessions of walking meditation. We had 2 breaks of 15 minutes when we had matcha tea, I believe. So, why Rohatsu or Bodhi day as it is also called?

Daizan is giving his talk

About 2,500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha sat under a tree, famously known as the Bodhi tree and reached enlightenment or awakening or realisation. He realised why he and other human beings suffer, he awakened to the fact that our own mind plays a big part in this ‘suffering business’. He realised that our own mind wouldn’t allow us to be unconditionally happy. At the same time, he ‘acquired’, during this awakening, the wisdom that allowed him to experience the happiness that is not conditioned or dependent by external conditions; the Buddha became unconditionally happy.

Buddha under the Bodhi tree

After the talk Daizan gave, we ate some rice pudding with the addition of some honey. The reason for that is found again in the experience the original Buddha had himself before he sat under the Bodhi tree prior his awakening. Shakyamuni Buddha for a few years before that he fasted and practiced a very strict self imposed austerity. His body became very weak and, I can only guess here, his mood and his energy became very low. One day, he was noticed by a very compassionate girl called Sujata who gave him a bowl of rice pudding with some honey in it. The Buddha, despite his self imposed austerity, accepted the food and soon his energy and his vitality were restored. Now he had the strength he required to carry on with his practice. He could look forward to the end of his quest, namely, finding out about the nature of all things. Out of this episode in which Sujata gave Shakyamuni Buddha the rice pudding stems the Buddhist doctrine of the Middle Path; the path between extremes, between asceticism and hedonism. I have to mention here that the Buddha, before setting off on his quest was a prince and he had access to all the pleasures that a prince could have. That didn’t give him that unconditional happiness that he was after since he realised that he could still get sick and die as anyone else. That unconditional happiness could not be found in the starvation of his body either as he experienced in those years of self austerity. Starve himself didn’t bring any joy and, on top of that, he must have realised that both body and mind must be nourished if he wanted to reach that state of unconditional happiness he was after.

The rice pudding we had was very sweet. I loved it and felt so grateful for this symbolic and nourishing food my body was receiving. The course was now set, we would just sit with our strongest resolve to reach enlightenment by dawn! 

I forgot to mention that for the night I was Jikijitsu (I will write a post on the Jikijitsu role in the Zen tradition). My role was to keep the timings of the various sitting and walking meditation sessions. To help me with this, I had my wrist watch, two clappers and a little bell called Inkin. The wrist watch, of course, would give me the time, the clappers and the Inkin would signal to the attending people when the various sessions started and finished. My role also included another task which I am going to write about later on. 

In the dojo, there were 10 people but the practice community, or Sangha as it is known also included some 30 people who joined in online. It is so beautiful to feel the energy, the intention and the determination of all these people coming together. Of course, we are meditating alone, we are alone with our own mind, our own challenging thoughts, our own physical pains but, for me at least, the presence of the community is fundamental. In this journey in which we travel alone, we are actually travelling all together, all as one, one as all. 

During my sitting, I was doing my best to contemplate the nature of my mind, the impermanence of thoughts, perceptions, emotions, feelings and so on. Just trying to stay in that neutral place where all is just observed, where nothing is personal but all is just what it is. I remember, at one point towards the end of the night, to hear the sound of an airplane overhead, Camberwell must be on the flying path of one the big London airports, Heathrow I guess. The sound was simply a sound, it was not loud, it was not quite, it was not bothering me, it was not causing any particular reaction in me, it was simply a sound. I know how the mind works normally, I hear a sound, and straight after there is a comment about it, too loud, it is ‘ruining’ the silence, the airplane is a big polluter, or other kind of comments. This time it was just a sound, it was not followed by anything else, it was an empty sound and it was full of soundness at the same time. It was complete as it was, it didn’t need anything else to be what it was already. Then a thought came to my mind and, as for the sound, it was just a thought, it was not good, it was not bad, it was not annoying, pleasant, unpleasant…. it was simply a thought, empty of a fixed and independent entity (the thought depended on many different causes, starting from the mind reflecting it) and yet full and complete as it appeared and vanished. I didn’t have to do anything with it or about it, it just flew into the sky of my consciousness in the same way the plane flew undisturbed in the sky above me just seconds before. Then, all that happened after that had the same quality. Everything was just what it was; all movements, people talking, noises, the traffic on the way home were just what there was in each moment, neither good, nor bad, annoying and so on. That is what we can call no-separation, no-separation from me experiencing the experience and the experience itself, just one thing without any additional commentary. 

Of course, a long night contemplating the mind can really help seeing more clearly into its own nature and the illusions that this can create. The challenging conditions created by a night long meditation, when the body is begging for a bed, can show more clearly the mental patterns and the tendency to not accept the reality of things. Not giving in to my own mind is the initial and essential thing to do if I want to find a different way to interact with and, in life. Gently allowing the mind to take its own course but not giving any energy, allowing things to arise and to pass, just remain present and have the ambition to see what is clearly necessary to do in each moment. That, in my own experience, starts developing another kind of mind, the wisdom mind, the mind that knows without knowing as I like to call it. It knows without knowing because it doesn’t need to have the knowledge of past events, of an encyclopaedia of things to know what the present moment requires. This illuminated mind just prompts one to act with no further thinking, what it is necessary, appears very clearly, no need to ask around. Out of laziness, out of habit, out of fear, out of so many different things, we don’t take the trouble or we are not patient enough to wait for this mind to show what is real and necessary, we, at least me, just jump on board of our personal and conditioned mind and we just act, or don’t act, out of laziness, out of habit, out of fear, out of so many different things. Meditation and mindfulness help us greatly in developing this new approach toward things in general, they, meditation and mindfulness, develop this patience and care that allows the illuminated mind to shine forth and help us to act in a more generous, caring, effective and true way. 

Back to Rohatsu now. The night went on very smoothly, one session of sitting was followed by some walking meditation in a tennis court adjacent to the dojo. We would do 5 laps, around 10 minutes. Outside I felt cold and that helped me to stay awake during the night. At one point, I wore an extra layer since I had a nose bleed and I thought it was caused by the contrast between warm inside and cold outside. In any case, I did like and benefited from the walking. All I was doing, was to try to stay with the sensations I was experiencing; cold, sleepy, tired and so on. I tried my best not to energise any of the thoughts that came to visit. Just open and aware of walking.

Walking in the tennis court

One more responsibility for the Jikijitsu during Rohatsu is to use the Keisaku. This is a flat wooden stick used as a remedy against sleepiness. It was the first time I used it and I didn’t know exactly how to. Initially I thought that I would need to gently tap it on people’s shoulders to keep them awake or to remind them of their initial resolve. However, I found out that you want to strike people with some energy to energise them to keep practicing. There is a specific place on people’s back where the Keisaku is used and, in that place, no injuries are left but the vigour in their bodies is restored. That was for me a very interesting experience because of course, I felt a strong objection towards ‘hurting’ people but then I realised that it was my role in that moment. All was done with compassion and care towards others who just wanted to energise their practice. It was something that went beyond my mental likes and dislikes and it was done with love and compassion, supporting other people in their own practice. 

In my experience with Zen, there have been many of these situations which might appear to be controversial for the ‘conventional mind’. It is unusual to think of striking a person on their back out of love and compassion. However, that is my own understanding of the use of the Keisaku; it is not about me and about what I like or don’t like, it is about being available to others, to support them in their own practice and, if what it takes is to be hit by a flat stick, you don’t argue about that, you just do it. That is what the moment, that is what the path to liberation is requiring; it is this going beyond the intellectual mind, the good and the bad, right or wrong, breaking through the conditions ‘imposed’ by our own minds.

At 6 in the morning, I rang the Inkin and clapped the clappers for the last time. We then gathered together around our breakfast tables and enjoyed some food. There was no signs of sleepiness in myself and I could not see signs of sleepiness in other people either, just the desire to share a very joyous moment. 

Rohatsu Breakfast 

SESSHIN (5-DAY RETREAT) – MIRROR ZEN

I know every wrinkle on my face, every scar, indentation, valleys and rises as I stared in a mirror for 5 consecutive days.

I went to a Sesshin last month, a meditation retreat in the Zen tradition. During this period of intense practice (meditation practice), one follows a very rigid schedule; sitting meditation, walking meditation, working meditation, eating mindfully, mindful movements, chanting and silence, lots of silence. And, it was from the shadow of this silence that I got to see very clearly what was going on in the mind when I attended the various scheduled activities. I could not distract myself by chatting to someone else but I had to live totally with my own thoughts, feelings, emotions. Resistances, likes, dislikes, wanting to move, scratching, rushing to get some food, not considering others, getting upset because food run out…… In silence, all these things are clearly seen, they are clearly heard like a scream in the dark, one can’t pretend to not have heard it.

Don’t get me wrong, there is also great beauty in spending so much time in silence, especially for a person like me that feels at times inadequate when being around people. I didn’t have to talk, I just had to get on with the various tasks, my own inner stuff and my face reflected in a mirror, not such a bad thing after all.

At the Noddfa centre, around 30 people moved inside the boundaries of the rigid Sesshin schedule, focussed on themselves; noticing their thoughts, emotions, likes and dislikes. Noticing without reacting, that is one of the qualities of a mindful mind. Noticing what arises, allowing space without grasping. The more I allow, the more there is a sense of space expanding (well, that’s what it feels like). In the moment I try to grasp a thought, for instance, the same space shuts down around that thought, I am caught, my attention is caught. Is there anything wrong when the attention gets caught? No, nothing is neither wrong or right for that matter but I am limiting myself within claustrophobic boundaries whilst missing out on the actual experience that is unfolding around me. I am holding on to something, not letting go, fixated on a concept or an idea, very intellectual and not really experiential. Of course, there are times when I need to focus on thoughts, I need to analyse or work something out or when I speak to someone and I want to know exactly what to say. However, when meditating we want to allow thoughts to arise without us ‘disturbing’ them. Thoughts are not a problem at all but what we do with them can create the conditions for some potential disharmony with how we deal with situations, people and ourselves too. We all know how one thought leads on to the next one and the next one again in an endless thread that carries us down the spiral of our own creative, corrupted, conditioned, individual story about how things are. This spiralling is what we call the world of separation, our story versus what is out there, the ‘hostile’ world. Rather than experiencing things, we think about them, what we like or don’t like about them, how we can twist them to try to ‘gain’ something, how to avoid or how to have more. Thoughts are gauging the actual experience of life, they are not the experience itself, they are ideas about it. My experience with Zen is that we are practising to break down this illusory wall that separates us from the ‘hostile’ universe. Once the wall is down, there is no separation, we are the universe, there is neither hostility nor no-hostility, we are just what we are. However, why did we stare in a mirror for 5 consecutive days then?

The Mirror Zen Sesshin is based around the practice of sitting and facing yourselves in a mirror. Practice which was developed in a Japanese temple called Tokei-ji in the Kamakura period by female Zen master Kakuzan Shido. Kakuzan Shido would meditate before the mirror to see into her own nature. In the same way, later generations of nuns and us at the Noddfa centre have been meditating on various koans associated to the mirror image and reflections. I can kind of imagine Kakuzan Shido walking towards a mirror; thoughts must have popped into her mind whilst she was getting closer to it. As she got very near to it, she must have clearly seen that those thoughts were not reflected in the mirror, they were reflected by an inner mirror which we commonly call mind. Possibly, she saw the reality that laid in front of her reflected in the mirror and the reality of her own thoughts. Two separate realities. There were thoughts about how she saw things, how she believed things were. Clearly, she realised that the 2 realities were not matching. What was seen by her own eyes was different or corrupted by what her mind was saying. The mind had ideas about what she was seeing and these ideas were clearly subjective, conditioned, dependent by factors such as mood, lightness, darkness and so on and so forth. For that reason, I guess, she carried on with this Mirror Zen practice, she refined it and passed it down to other students. This is my reading of how things went which I am sure is very far from what really inspired Kakuzan Shido.

Is the mirror showing the content of my own mind? Where in the mirror are the thoughts which appear in my mind? Can I see them? These were some of the questions that naturally arose and sustained me during my practice of seeing into my own nature. If thoughts are not in the mirror, where are they coming from? These questions help breaking our logical way of seeing things and open up to a different way of experiencing life in general; not so much an intellectual endeavour but rather an experiential experience, a moment to moment experience, from a philosophical approach to things to a more practical one, from an intellectual way to relate to things, to a more intuitive one.

What did I take home from this retreat? I am not sure that I took home something specific from the retreat. Definitely lots of inspiration to keep practicing and admiration for all of those who practice. Gratitude towards Kakuzan Shido and 22 generations of practitioners after her who kept this specific practice alive. What was apparent in the mirror of my mind were those thoughts of inadequacy that at times take over. Being able to let go of those fears and of that sense of me, personal me, separate me, that illusory sense of separation in general. That is what showed up very strongly at the end of the retreat. So ‘full speed ahead’……