Are you the kind of person who finds getting up early in the morning harder than being beaten with a stick? Ever tried both options at once?
It’s actually surprisingly pleasant and relaxing.
‘Zazen’ is a meditation practice of the Zen school of Buddhism. It is a form of seated meditation concentrating on ones breathing, posture and maintaining a clear mind in order to achieve a state of self enlightenment.
We were lucky to experience an early morning Zazen meditation workshop at none other than World Heritage Temple Motsu-ji in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture.
To be perfectly honest with you, I was not thrilled at the idea of dragging myself out of bed at 5:30am to get to the temple on time, but – perhaps it was a positive effect of the meditation – I walked away feeling incredibly satisfied and grateful that I had overcome the desire to crawl back under my futon cover.
We arrived at Motsu-ji Temple a little before 6:00AM on a sunny, late summer morning. There were our group of ten and maybe ten other visitors waiting outside the closed temple gates for our first instruction. Soon enough, a temple priest dressed in his prayer robes and a stern expression glided out the side gate and began calling attendance from a list of registered names.
We were whisked away to the inside of the main temple hall where we were greeted with two rows of small, round cushions lined up along the tatami matting in front of a splendid Buddhist altar. The morning sun filtered through the open doors from the garden outside and the smell of incense filled the air…it still wasn’t quite enough to wake me up, but little did I know what was to come next!
After a brief introduction to the practice of Zazen, we were instructed on the correct breathing techniques and posture before the gong was hit and we were left to our own devices to clear our minds of everyday clutter and focus on our current state of being. Not as easy a task as it might sound! It’s amazing how quickly insignificant thoughts can pop back into your mind, no matter how hard you concentrate. The thought of breakfast, for one, was tough to ignore!
Fortunately for the mentally weak among us, another characteristic of Zazen meditation is a helpful tool called a ‘kyosaku’ (or an ‘awakening stick’), wielded by the overseeing priest.
It was only 5 minutes or so into our meditation that I became acquainted with said awakening.
Just as I was finding a balance between staying awake but also banishing thoughts of coffee and toast…*THWACK, THWACK, THWACK* on my right shoulder and *THWACK, THWACK, THWACK* on the left.
I wouldn’t say it hurt, but it was far more effective than any double espresso.
Once the meditation itself was over, we were given time to stretch our muscles and regain our circulation before we were given a short and insightful sermon about the importance of finding even the shortest moment of mindfulness in our busy lives. Indeed, even after just 30 minutes of meditation, I must admit that my mind felt lighter, and I generally felt much more positive and at ease than I have done at 7:00 in the morning for a very long time.
As we left, we were awarded a certificate to commemorate our Zazen experience.
A light stroll around the outside gardens is also highly recommended! In just a few weeks time, the many maple trees surrounding the temple will turn a shade of brilliant red. The layout of the garden is said to reflect the Buddhist concept of the ‘Pure Land’, or paradise on earth. What better place to come back for a moment or two of mindfulness among the Autumn leaves.
ZAZEN MEDITATION: MOTSU-JI TEMPLE
Reservations are required from the Motsu-ji Temple Office: 0191-46-2331
Students (high school and younger): 200 yen per person
1-5 adults: 1000 yen per person
6-9 adults: 5000 yen per group
10 or more adults: 500 yen per person
MOTSU-JI TEMPLE 【毛越寺】
Official opening hours: 8:30AM ~ 05:00PM
Hiraizumi is accessible from JR Hiraizumi Station. Local trains connect to the Tohoku Shinkansen from nearby Ichinoseki Station. (There are also buses available from Ichinoseki Station).
Motsu-ji is located about a 10~15 minute walk from Hiraizumi station. There are also rental bicycles and a tourist loop bus available which services most of the main attractions in the area.
See the Motsu-ji Temple homepage for more information: http://www.motsuji.or.jp/en/index.html