BY ANJALI HIREGANGE
The idea of meditating in a lush, elegant space tucked away in the mountains sounds idyllic, but is it really? Let me tell you about my experience at an Indian zendo, and how it has shifted my approach to living, ever so slightly.
Zen is not a belief system, rather it is a practice that seeks to remove duality and instill simplicity and presence in its stead. This practice, which originated 1500 years ago in China, made its way to Japan, Korea and Vietnam before being embraced globally by enthusiasts. Zen relies on meditation as its touchstone, as the route to subtler understandings and stronger intuition, rather than on doctrine, dogma and rituals. Without being a religious person myself, I was able to enjoy the beauty of the discipline, and the patience and introspection needed. Zen, which has its roots in Mahayana Buddhism asks us to simply be aware of ourselves in the moment. This conscious meditative practice, repeated over days, months or even years can help the practitioner in surrendering limiting beliefs of self and so-called contradictory thoughts. Slowly, over time, the mental baggage we tend to carry is shed, slowly we will then be able to see that within and without are the same.
The Chinese sage Shitou explores the zen state of mind using the metaphor of a grass hut in his poem “Song of the Grass-Roof Hermitage”. Unlike one built of cement, stone, or wood, a grass hut isn’t durable. Heavy rains and winds are liable to cause leakage, or for the roof to blow off. Yet the narrator builds this simple hut on a mountain slope and invites the reader to join him within. The reader may respond with reluctance or concern for the safety of the hut-dweller. In contrast, the narrator has made his peace with life’s impermanence. He knows his hut may collapse in months to come, that the weeds he has cleared will spring forth once more, but he isn’t bothered by this. Rather he encourages the reader to “open your hands, innocent” and “relax completely”.
The core of Zen is zazen, the practice of sitting in the lotus position and breathing in and out through the nose while keeping the mouth closed. On a normal day at Bodhi Zendo, we were required to do a total of three hours of zazen, as well as an hour and a half of samu or service. Samu or daily duty involved simple chores such as chopping vegetables, sweeping verandas, as well as cleaning the dining room. We were woken up each morning by the continuous jangle of bells, at 5.30 am. This was followed by an hour of meditation with a walking meditation after 25 minutes to break the monotony. This meditative walk is referred to as kinhin in Japanese. Also involved was an optional meeting with the resident zen master, called dokusan. I especially enjoyed them, as I could address my most pressing questions to the master, whose replies were always cheerful, measured and had an infectious quality of lightness to them.
Each morning, I would shuffle into the meditation room in my warm clothing, sometimes having hurried up the stairs at the sound of the gong indicating the start of the session. Taking my sandals off, I would bow at the entrance. Bowing was an integral part of the zendo, a way of showing acknowledgement and respect to the practice as well as each other. Then began the internal dialogues and restlessness- as I closed my eyes and tried to concentrate, thoughts rose continuously like smoke from a chimney. Thoughts of my mouth being too dry, of feeling cold, resentment and anger at a perceived betrayal, worries about my finances, that self-pitying thought “why does everything happen to ME!”. But I did not try to stop them, as beginner meditators are prone to doing. They annoyed me and I wished I was above such pettiness, yet I let them come and go like clouds.
By the third day, I noticed a significant improvement in my mental state during zazen. There were still the mundane thoughts and irritation, but I noticed how they had dimmed down in their decibel levels. I noticed how more space had opened up in my mind, more nothingness became present. As I explored this no-space I also had no words for it. It was like being in nothing while being at peace. The energy of positivity and love would emanate from this discovery of quiet restfulness. Sometimes, words of affirmation would organically rise in me, and they seemed to be helping me deal with the emotional problem I was plagued with. I didn’t make an effort to repeat or take them in any direction. When thoughts rose again, I tried to be in discomfort.
A crucial part of the zendo was the wholesome meals they offered. Lunches were celebrations, with many varieties of veggies and South Indian treats. My account at the zendo would be amiss without mention of its glorious garden, filled with every variety of flora possible. I spotted buttercups, wall daisies, amaryllises, rain-lilies, hibiscuses, roses and more. It came to my attention that the founding father Ama Samy closely related zen with flowers! This was not only a meditation centre but also a self-sufficient farm that grew coffee, passion fruit, bananas, chillies and salad greens. What’s more, they used organic methods of growing foods and soapnut solution in place of regular dishwashing liquids. We were required to wash our dishes and clean our rooms before vacating. These little details were all lessons in humility. One can do great things in silence while enjoying a state of equanimity and serenity within. One can also do “lowly” tasks with a sense of joy. I left feeling refreshed, more conscious and a lot wiser. I vowed to retreat to these hills once more and deepen my roots of zazen.
Anjali Hiregange is a writer, freelance artist and practising sound healer based in Bangalore. Following her bachelor’s at Christ University, she completed her master’s in Literature at English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad. She loves travelling, smoothies, art and being in nature.