Early on a balmy summer Sunday morning, I went to Kamakura with some friends, about one hour south-west of Tokyo by train. Kamakura is a very popular place for Tokyo residents to go and visit. As well as some nice sea-side areas, it harks back to a more traditional time in Japan. One of the things it has in this theme is a rather large Zen temple.
The reason a small group of us were there was for what you’d call the equivalent of Zen Sunday morning mass. It begins with chanting a Zen mantra for fifteen minutes – almost hypnotic in the early morning heat – and then a sermon. I couldn’t understand very much of it, but most of it talked about Obon, a Buddhist festival celebrating the spirits of one’s ancestors. But that wasn’t really why I came. The main course was… Zen meditation.
Now, you might be familiar with basic breathing meditation – sitting tranquilly, closing one’s eyes, focusing on only the breath and emptying the mind. A few of the little details in Zen mediation are slightly different. The first difference is that you keep your eyes open, though staring at nothing in particular. This makes things a little more difficult, particularly when you’re in a very interesting-looking temple, with about one hundred other people.
The second difference is that there’s a monk quietly patrolling through the meditators with a five-foot long lump of timber. Every minute or so, he uses it to give a meditator a solid hiding.
True. Meditators who are looking a little drowsy or losing focus are favoured with a stern paddling. In this case, though, contrary to what I’ve heard elsewhere, you actually had to ask for your paddling. This isn’t like your headmaster rapping you across the knuckles at school, though.
As the patrolling monk passes, you put your hands together to petition him. He bows to you. You bow to him. You lean forward, crossing your arms and exposing your back. He assumes the paddling position. He lightly places the paddle across your back to target it. And then…
I was expecting this to be something like a symbolic love tap. In reality, it’s a fairly full-blooded hit – two staccato blows in rapid succession – that echoes around every corner of the temple. Two on the left side, two on the right. The hit-ee then thanks the monk with a polite bow. Problem solved – now they have something to think about.
I had believed that Zen meditation was designed to empty the mind of trivial matters. It did this to some extent, in that my trivial matters were now replaced with a recurring thought of “Holy ****, how hard did he just hit that guy?”.
So, did I get the full Zen shellacking experience? Happily or unhappily, no. It turned out that I passed on the one opportunity I would end up having. My friend volunteered though, I was sitting next to him. As the paddle comes down, the sound is wince-inducing, like you just belly-flopped a particularly thick side of beef onto hot concrete from five stories up. Of course, the paddle is fairly flat, so it’s also engineered to make a particularly meaty thwack against one’s back without permanent damage.
Amazingly, not one of the meditators made a sound after this happened. Although I was assured that it was painful enough, my friend said the residual effects were gone in about 36 hours.
I wish I had photos I could show you, but see, there was this guy walking around with a big lump of wood that he wasn’t shy about using. Actually, the monk seemed like a friendly enough guy, and I guess he was well qualified to deliver some very direct focus, no doubt being the frequent recipient of the same.
So, I haven’t really had the full Zen experience. It really does take some practice – just sitting there motionless and cross-legged for the forty minutes is painful enough. Now if only they perhaps had some way to get my mind off my circulatory-deprived legs…