Sponsored by Nakatsugawa city.
Zen is probably one of the most illustrious Japanese terms that have conquered our country. Synonymous with rest for some or well-being for others in everyday language, Zen is originated from a Japanese branch of Mahāyāna Buddhism with a focus on meditation.
Tea ceremony at Iouji Temple 医王寺
Japanese tea ceremony is not strictly part of meditation, which usually concentrates on one particular point. Tea ceremony gives us a real break from pangs of outside world by creating an aura of calm during preparing tea. This is a protocol to be respected.
A host of Iouji Temple warmly welcomed me in a rainy day. The temple is designed by traditional Japanese architectures, and reveals all its welcoming character in pouring rain. You can envelop in your sense of smell such as soft straw tatami, and rest your eyes through smoothness of light through shoji sliding panes and brighten your heart thanks to a garden filled with water features and small waterfalls. Now take a rest to fill your taste.
Matcha tea takes several minutes to be prepared according to a protocol to respect to fully appreciate guests. After having poured a few tea spoons of matcha powder into the bottom of a ceramic tea bowl, pour some small ladles of hot water and then vigorously stir up and down with a chasen, a small bamboo whisk specific for this purpose. Bubbles size on surface of tea shows us the quality of the host’s preparation: the smaller they are, the smoother the texture will be. To enhance the bitterness of Matcha tea, they are usually served with a Japanese sweet, and sweetness goes perfectly on your taste buds with a first sip. The Japanese sweet served here is made of chestnuts, one of local specialties in Gifu prefecture. With a strong but delicate taste and a melting texture without being soft, it is one of the best matcha partners that I have come across so far.
After tasting a tea finalized by a last powerful and protocolary aspiration not to leave a trace in the bowl, you can move into a prayer room to continue this sweet moment. A monk in charge of the temple assisted me to burn an incense stick while reciting a short prayer if you wish. Prayer in this context is not necessarily related to a practice of religion and syncretism, so this is specific to Japanese archipelago and there is no harm in mixing practices or beliefs; All of above is a physical and spiritual recollection.
Once again, rainy weather during such an experience did not disturb me and gave a very different atmosphere, which also suits to meditation. Sounds of rainwater as tinkling of these traditional bells rocked gave me precious moments in Iou-ji Temple.
A tour guide of Nakatsugawa City offered me warmest and kindest welcome with a patience and passion to answer all of my specific questions about tea ceremony.
Experience Zazen 座禅 at Zensho-ji temple善昌寺
After the prologue of tea ceremony, now it is time to practice meditation. Zazen is a sitting meditation posture of Zen Buddhism, particularly known in the West by Sōtō and Rinzai schools. The prefix za means “seated” and the suffix zen is “meditation”, zazen is therefore the sitting meditation referring to a posture which Buddha would have adopted during his meditations.
Zazen usually takes place from 30 to 60 minutes and performed in a dojo or more specifically in a meditation rooms which is called zendo with alternating of kinhin which is meditative steps by ten minutes. Traditionally, a shijosho anunces the beginning of zazen by triple ringing of a bell, then hozensho plays sounds and announces an end of a cycle. Before and after the session on zafu, whih is a meditation cushion, a practitioner salutes hands in gassho style bowing to his zafu with fellow practitioners and master.
Common positions to sit on zafu are kekkahuza-lotus position, hankahuza- half-lotus position, so-called Burmese cross-legged position with crossed legs or seiza, and a kneeling posture with either on a zafu or a small bench. In these different postures – which can sometimes be painful for beginners – you can solve problems of zazen by practicing to sit on a chair, or placing a square cushion behind the lower back to help maintain natural curvature of spine.
The practice may differ on some points depending on schools. In the Sōtō zen, their seats face the wall of zendo during practice and kinhin walk is done at a very slow speed; shikantaza seat is aimless, it is a matter of “just sitting down” and observing the phenomena. In Rinzai school, they sit in front of central aisle and kinhin walk is done at a fast speed; in addition, a practitioner focuses on a kōan, which is a short discussion during the sitting. During zazen, they don’t use systematically kyosaku,which is a stick which strikes meditator’s shoulders in case of drowsiness or restlessness.
You can practice Zazen for a few hours or a day in zazenkai. There is a meditation retreat which is an opportunity to practice zazen about ten hours in a day: it is called sesshin.
Reception at Zensho-ji temple is kind; there may be apprehension of most newcomers who fear their bad practice or intimidation at solemnity of the exercise.
Various sitting postures quickly will reveal pains if your daily posture is not adequate. A master of Zensho-ji temple reminded me of righteousness of my back, inclination of my head, and rhythm of my breathing by sparing me fortunately with kyosaku stick blows. You will find it interesting to note that a few minutes are enough to become aware of these defects which is difficult to see on your daily basis, and body therefore crash constantly without necessarily sending signals of distress.
Calligraphie shuuji course 習字 at Kofuku-ji temple 高福寺
A few steps from Zensho-ji Temple, Kofuku-ji Temple offers a first approach to shuuji, and you can learn Japanese calligraphy. A monk in charge of this temple and his English-speaking wife welcomes me first, and a course begins with a brief history of the temple, then a short prayer with a mantra sung and murmured. You will feel powerful vibrations into the deepest.
The training consists of writing your first name in kanjis, which is one of the Japanese writing systems composed of sinograms. I was offered eight signs, four for each syllable of my first name, Leo. For syllable “lé”, I chose the sign 零 meaning zero, then sign 央 for “o” meaning center or middle. After a short explanation as I was obviously somewhat unexpected having smiles and curiosities, I was asked to proceed to the first step: rub a sumi ink stick in a suzuri inkwell to make the necessary black ink.
After several minutes of friction, the lesson really began with the basic exercises and basic rules of writing to respect, such as vertical lines drawn from bottom to top and horizontal lines from left to right; the latter being a bit more complicated for a southpaw.
After practicing several guided test lines which give you confidence, the master gradually leaves autonomy until you almost complete drawing signs without assistance. For difficult points and gestural memory, he put his hand on my hand to make me understand all the different subtleties of writing pressure and speed which are necessary to elegance and delicacy, or sometimes give me hints by gesture for a dignified execution of my name.
An unforgettable Zen moment
This zen experience during a beautiful morning at Iou-ji Temple, Zensho-ji Temple and Kofuku-ji Temple proves to be a real unforgettable moment which is unique and privileged. A few hours are obviously not enough to truly immerse yourself in deep meditation, but nothing may be difficult to imagine a better introduction than to fill your five senses through the discovery of these three activities under such conditions.