For the mind to be as still and solid and strong and immovable as a mountain. That, in a way, is the essence of Zen. To be the sky and watch the clouds go by.
I was in Tramore in County Waterford, Ireland, for a day-long Zen Buddhist retreat. It was in a family home on the outskirts of the town – a bungalow with grassy lawns and mature shrubbery and a t-junctioned hallway of shiny white tiles and greeny plants and walls of well-spaced paintings, prints and maps.
The retreat was organised by an Irish lay-Buddhist named John who is originally from Dublin but now lives in County Waterford. He leads a weekly Wednesday-evening Zen meditation group in the Edmund Rice Centre in Waterford City. It’s attended weekly by a small group of less than ten.
I’d gone to the Wednesday meeting once during the year – the only other person there that day, other than John, was an older gentleman, a devout Catholic, who said that meditation helped him with his own religious practice.
Last Sunday there was a handful of people attending the retreat – five including John – and a monk from Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northern England who led the retreat.
I was welcomed and introduced to the monk – Reverend Finán – in the clean sitting room that was lined with book shelves. The monk sat upright at the edge of a comfy armchair. He stood up, smiled and shook my hand. He was brown-robed and pale-faced with high cheekbones. He seemed very gentle. Blue-eyed. Shaved head.
One woman jokingly asked the monk if he’d like a brandy before we started.
Then we all headed down the hall to the room where the meditation was to take place. The room was a bedroom that had been cleared out of all the furniture except for a chest of drawers that had been converted into an altar. On the top of the drawers was a white ‘table-cloth’ with a statue of the Buddha, a lotus flower, a small bowl of walnuts, a tiny tumbler of water and two burning candles.
People had either brought their own meditation stools or sat on dining chairs. The monk sat cross legged – full lotus position – on the floor. We recited a verse of Buddhist scripture and then sat, facing the wall for thirty five minutes. There were no instructions given. This was probably because everyone there had attended Zen meditation previously.
The Irish Census of 2011 recorded just over 8,000 Buddhists living in Ireland – only 0.2 percent of the population. The number of Buddhists in Ireland, however, has grown steadily since 1991 when there were just 986 self-identified Buddhists in the country.
It’s believed that there are also a significant number of ‘night stand’ Buddhists in Ireland – people who might identify themselves as belonging to another religious tradition but who keep books by Buddhist authors on their bedside lockers or who dabble in meditation.
Like all religious traditions in Ireland there are many different strands that exist under the one religious banner. In Ireland there are different schools, traditions and lineages of Buddhism. Zen is one strand and the retreat that I attended was from one lineage within one strand of Zen.
We sat and ‘meditated’ for 35 minutes (sitting meditation is called ‘zazen’). Then we walked very slowly around the emptied soft-carpeted bedroom for five or ten minutes and then sat again for 35 minutes. There was a tea-break with a short talk by the monk about the Buddhist precepts (guides for living), another twenty minute sitting, lunch, and two more 35 minute sittings broken up by another walk around the room.
The sitting meditation is very much about awareness – of the breath, of the sounds, of thoughts, emotions. To be conscious of the things that enter our consciousness. To be aware of awareness. It sounds easy. Sometimes it is. But on the second-to-last session I had a serious urge to jump up and run like mad out of the room.
In modern societies the tendency is often to be ‘doing’. To be active – reading, watching TV, on phones, social media, socialising, cooking, eating. In Zen the focus is on ‘being’. There are teachings about how to deal with suffering, discomfort, pain. To experience it without running away. In some ways there is an aim to treat pleasure and pain with equal measure. Or praise and criticism.
There are ideals. I don’t know how attainable they are. But for me Zen meditation is a very empowering practice – to watch thoughts as they arise and to let them go. To dis-identify. Occasionally there are even moments of nothing, emptiness, peace.
I came home after the retreat and thought about the idea of ‘being’, just ‘being’. And I’m sure there is a balance to be had – between being and doing, being awareness and engagement. I’m not sure where the balance lies. The ideal balance. But during the week the thought did come to mind that ‘if I was to be, just be, I might as well just be a tree’. Not sure where that leaves me either. No pun intended. But for the moment I will be continuing with an aim at least of daily sitting – meditation.