Photo: Image Source Trading Ltd/Shutterstock

Seeking the Essence of Zen

by Jeff Eagar Jan 18, 2010
Jeff Eagar attempts to pass the 3 tests of the zen path, on the ancient and modern streets of Kyoto, Japan.

I stepped off the night bus at 5:30 am into a dark, cold Kyoto morning. My last morsel to eat had been the night before and my stomach gave a little rumble for food, to which I replied, “Quiet, you’re fasting.”

I had been reading a lot lately about Japanese Zen and the country’s old capital Kyoto. The city has long been the cultural and religious centre of Zen culture, and today it still retains an extraordinary cache of ancient temples, shrines and gardens.

For these reasons it was an easy call. I would make a pilgrimage to Kyoto and get away from the mayhem and mind cluttering pace of my job in Tokyo.

Tokyo was recently ranked number one in the world by the US Census Bureau as the most populated and most expensive city to live in. On other unofficial lists Tokyo rated number one for most neon, concrete, and sweating, stressed, gray-suited salarymen.

In a megalopolis of such gargantuan proportions, like Master Daito said:

“Time flies like and arrow, so do not waste energy on trivial matters. Be attentive. Be attentive!” Zen Master Daito, 1337

My days are a blur of crammed subway cars on my way to work, then somehow it’s Friday night and I am in an izakaya (Japanese pub), drinking sake trying to recall where the time went.

This is why after reading Zen Master Daito’s words I was inspired to make a move.

Seeking True Zen

After taking the week off work, I bought a bus ticket and was on my way to Kyoto. My plan was to wander from temple to shrine, teahouse to Zen garden through the back alleyways and foothills of the city savoring the beauty, autumn and life.

There would be no email, no cellular phones, no television, no shopping, no restaurants, pubs or socializing. It was to be five days of detachment from all things meaningless, and a disciplined focus on the path. It was a simple plan, which coincidentally is one of the main precepts of fundamental Buddhism, simplicity.

Another Zen master named Ikkyu Sojun (1481) once professed, “The appreciation – the savoring – of beauty in all its forms is true Zen.” That was my goal. I knew the stressful social reality of the urban work-a-day world would still be waiting for me when I returned.

Looking around to get my bearings the sky began to lighten at the edge of the horizon. I wasn’t in a robe and straw sandals in the traditional ways of other monks, but I had packed as light as possible and was shouldering only a small daypack.

To make my pilgrimage to Kyoto even more interesting and beneficial I figured a five day fast couldn’t hurt. Around 1600 years ago the Buddhist monk Boddhidarma became famous for meditating against a rock wall in a cave for nine years, and cutting off his eyelids to keep from falling asleep during meditation.

I knew my sacrifices were only small compared to the great monks but I knew every journey started with just one step.

A Special Pilgrimage

Kyoto was not the ancient wood and tile roofed city that I had half expected it to be. The train and bus station was a monstrous ultra-modern complex, and the city rolled out in front of it like a glass and steel swell.

Beauty is something Buddhists preach as being innate and intangible, a value which you must look closely to see.

Beauty however, is something Buddhists preach as being innate and intangible, a value which you must look closely to see. I took it as the first lesson of my pilgrimage and stepped off the curb, heading out into the city to start my training.

The first night I checked into a ramshackle, one hundred year old guesthouse from the Meiji period. It was tucked in a small alley off the main road. I was given a sheet and pointed towards a futon on the floor of a big tatami matt (woven straw) room. It was a traditional house with paper-thin walls.

All the noise and cold from the streets outside filled the room. I had packed only a few clothes so I put on everything I had and sat cross-legged on my futon reading a Buddhist text. Across the street sat an old Shinto shrine, painted bright orange with a thick thatched roof, and next door an antique shop selling old Japanese scrolls and trinkets.

Though I was staying in a guesthouse in a thriving metropolis, it still felt like I was on a special pilgrimage. I curled up under the blankets on my futon and went to sleep early.

Emptying The Mind

The next morning I snuck out of the guesthouse while it was still dark. I had rented a bike the night before and as dawn broke and the stars faded I peddled my way to the edge of the city towards Nanzen ji (temple) enjoying the calm of the empty streets.

My head was empty. I was thinking of nothing.

A sturdy, monstrous two-story wooden entrance gate greeted me at the foot of the temple complex, which rolled back into the colorful autumn foothills and lost itself amongst the trees. The bright sunrise sparkled in the dew and glistened on the dark timber temples.

The current headquarters of the Rinzai school of Zen, Nanzen-ji is scattered with simple and extravagant teahouses, halls and temples all meticulously built during the Edo period. Each is surrounded with impeccably trimmed gardens. The complex was ancient and still.

I wandered aimlessly around the grounds for an hour without thinking before sitting beneath a blood red Japanese maple for some Zazen; seated meditation.

Emptying your mind of all thought is not an easy task. It takes discipline and practice. Your mind is constantly filled with a continual procession of thoughts on every subject under the sun.

Most are trivial and unneeded responses to certain sights, noises, smells and other stimuli. Training yourself to clear your head, block out your surroundings, and suppress the series of useless thoughts that bubble up from your unconscious is very difficult.

But like everything else in life, with practice you get better and it becomes easier.

And when you first begin to grasp the process of emptying your mind, of thinking of nothing, of quiet meditation, the pervading calm and feeling of peace you experience makes you feel more alive and more eternal than ever before.

The First Test

Leaving the temple I approached the spot where I had left my bike, only to find an empty bit of fence. I looked up and down the bare sidewalk. I stood frustrated.

A moment later, realizing that my face had squashed into an angry grimace and my muscles were tense, I laughed aloud and relaxed. I remembered the philosophy of the Zen Buddhist ‘koan.’

A koan is a riddle devised by the Chinese Zen masters to stop budding Buddhist minds from wandering. They had their students meditate on a koan and channel their thoughts and feelings into a single purpose. Sometimes koans made no sense, focusing on a state of mind rather than words. They were a valuable exercise in helping students work towards enlightenment.

Standing there I recited my first koan, the riddle I would meditate on during my day’s wandering:

‘Feet or wheel what makes a better discipline. Was the bike actually real in the first place or are my feet just a figment of my imagination.’

Without a bike and with no hopes of getting my deposit back I mentally detached myself from the lost piece of metal and went on my way unconcerned. I had passed my first test.

The Second Test

My second test came later that afternoon at Ryoan ji, legendary for its Zen rock garden, the most famous of its kind in the world. Created in the fifteenth century, the garden is simplicity itself—fifteen rocks arranged in a sporadic rectangle of raked white gravel. The designer is anonymous and the message of the garden unknown.

Some scholars believe the rocks are the peaks of mountains poking out above a bed of clouds, others say the rocks are islands floating in the sea. I sat on the viewing platform with the other visitors staring at the rock garden.

People came and went. I sat. I stared. I focused on the stones as everything else around me faded, lost in my own mind
Suddenly I gained my second minor enlightenment.

Nothing! The rocks and the garden meant nothing. There was no meaning. Just as Buddhist philosophy preaches that everything comes from nothing and returns to nothing, and that life is all an illusion, there was no rock garden, there was no Ryoan ji, there wasn`t even an ‘I’.

It was just another koan, a physical koan written in stones and pebbles not words. I had passed my second test of the pilgrimage.

The Third Test

Kyoto in autumn is notorious for crowds. They followed me everywhere I went that week. The great Zen monk Hakuin’s master once told him: “If you can maintain your presence of mind in a city street teeming with violent activity, in a cremation ground amid death and destruction, and in a theatre surrounded by noise, then, and only then, are you a true practitioner of Zen.”

Wandering through the crowded temple grounds of Kikanku ji, home of the stunning Golden temple, I suddenly noticed that I had stopped dead in my tracks. I was standing still in the middle of the path staring blankly ahead, focused on nothing.

When I noticed the crowds having to step around me, I began walking again, joining the thick stream of visitors heading towards the temple. I was finally aware of the ancient practice that I had so often read about, ‘Zen in action.’

Monks continually speak of it — the total absorption they experience when doing basic tasks such as raking leaves, polishing floors, chopping wood, or simply walking. I realized what master Hakuin Ekaku (1768) meant when he said, ‘Meditation in the midst of action is a billion times superior to meditation in stillness.’

I passed the third test of my pilgrimage.

Essence of Existence

The week was not easy. My struggle to fight off the tempting smells wafting from soba noodle shops and the sight of fresh, red sushi calling to me from shop windows made my mind wander to grand dinners and plates piled high with delicious food.

My slow exhausted plod up the smallest of inclines required me to lean against buildings or rest against trees to catch my breath, and one hour in the middle of night four I awoke with stinging hunger pains in my stomach. ‘Hard training is the essence of the Buddha’s and the Patriarchs.’ Sojun Ikkyu once said.

I knew my sacrifices were only little, but they were tests, and I was passing. Sojun Ikkyu also once said, ‘Buddhas are made, not born.’ It’s not that I wanted to become a Buddha, more that I wanted to shake off that materialistic, false cloak of unconstructive priorities we have sewn for ourselves in this modern age.

Boarding the night bus to return to Tokyo, Japan’s oppressively crowded, teeming capital of flickering neon, Louis Vutton hand-bags and fancy hair-do’s I somehow felt more alive then ever before.

Old Zen Masters like Ikkyu, Indian sages like Rama Krishna, and old poets like Keats and writers like Emerson had insights into the real essence of existence. They recognized the beauty and timelessness of nature, understood the value of simplicity, and practiced the sentiments of kindness, patience and honesty.

The Return Home

I did not venture to Kyoto to become a Buddha, a patriarch or even a monk, but ‘The wisdom attained by practicing Zen in the midst of the world of desire is unshakable.’ A little strength, a little benevolence, a little hint of wisdom, that’s what I was hoping to attain. And I had. I had tasted them without even eating.

I was ready to return to the world’s largest megalopolis and the stressful social reality of the urban work-a-day world that I knew was waiting for me.

However, I vowed to myself that it would not overshadow what I had learned in Kyoto and what I knew was most important in life. Sitting in my seat as the city disappeared from view I remembered a poem written by Ikkyu Sojun that summed up my five days in Kyoto and the culmination of my pilgrimage:

I won’t die,
I won’t go anywhere,
But I won’t be here.
So don’t ask me anything –
For I won’t answer!

Have you experience the essence of Zen? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Discover Matador

Save Bookmark

We use cookies for analytics tracking and advertising from our partners.

For more information read our privacy policy.