What is meditation?
Many terms in the English language convey the spirit and meaning of the word meditation. For example;
* being conscious and aware
* being receptive and open
* being present, here and now
* being centred and grounded
* being calm and alert
* having a single pointed focused concentration of mind
* having clarity of mind, the art of seeing clearly
* having a moment to moment attention
Benefits of Meditation
There are a range of benefits from the practice of meditation:
* finding peace, relaxation and inner joy
* it is a helpful way to deal with stress and pain
* understanding ourselves better
* awareness of the interconnectedness of mind, body and feelings
* a pathway to discovering insight and wisdom
* helping us to deal with difficult situations with greater calmness and clarity of mind
* offering a technique in dealing with change and the impermanent nature of life
* overcoming greed, selfishness, negativity and worry
* breaking the cycle or dissolve unhealthy habits and addictions
* cultivating greater feelings of intimacy and closeness with ourselves and all of life
* exploring spiritual experiences and realising the joy of a free and awakened life
* giving us a foundation for ethical and noble aspirations in this life.
The general practice of mindfulness of breathing
The main purpose of mindfulness of breathing is to contribute to clarity, insight, awareness and peace of mind. It is beneficial in a wide variety of situations in our daily life.
Mindfulness practice helps to be free us from reactivity which arises out of fear, anger, confusion and stress. Mindfulness of breathing is the foundation practice for all other meditation practices. When mindfulness of breathing is established, concentration of mind increases and a greater depth of awareness is possible, this facilitates seeing clearly into the nature of things or the nature of reality. Awareness of breathing offers a bridge between the mind / body relationship, and also acts as a mirror for a greater awareness into our various states of mind. Mindfulness of breathing confirms our intimacy and interdependence with the surrounding environment. This perception contributes to our liberation from self-centred existence.
In zazen, our meditation is keyed to our breathing. Counting the breaths, assists in settling the mind, aids concentration and focuses our attention to the present moment. Breathing in, focus your attention directly on the breath in the body and the exhalation is keyed to the count of "one". Continue to the count of ten and then return again to the count of one. Thoughts may arise in our mind but you don't need to follow them or supress the thought. When you lose the count or realise you've gone past ten, come back naturally to "one", without dwelling on the fact that you have lost focus. Don't berate yourself for losing concentration, or losing count, just return to breath counting. When we start to focus the attention on a single object of concentration, we start to recognise how much energy we waste in fanaticising, conceptualising, or ruminating about the past. Breath counting is the basic practice to calm the body and mind, it gives rise to the necessary attention to inquire and see into our true nature.
The Zen tradition (Soto Rinzai tradition) employs the use of Koans or primary questions, which are skilful techniques that assist one to unlock the mystery of the heart-mind.
In the west today the meaning of the word 'koan' remains unclear or even mysterious. 'Ko'- refers to the single track followed by all the sages; 'an' means records of the highest principles that when followed everything in the universe becomes clear and vivid. When you contemplate a koan, it gathers the force of inquiry to penetrate beyond the intellectual mind, it points to the mystery that transcends birth and death. Koans cannot be answered by logic or reason.
Some of the examples of koans, or primary questions in our tradition are 'MU', which translates as no thing or nothing. Other primary koans include - 'Who is hearing?'; 'What is your original face before your parents were born?'; 'What is Buddha?'; 'What is it?'. These questions challenge the core of who we think or believe we are and open us to the essential truth of our being. We call this Buddha nature or the awakened heart-mind. This insight direct experience into our true nature, liberates us from old conditioned ways of seeing ourselves and the world. It brings peace, open heartedness, understanding, and compassion into our lives.
Koan study is taken up under the supervision of an authorised teacher. The first koan usually demands several years of diligent inquiry; then step by step, the study of koans gradually brings deeper and clearer understanding. Students test and check their insight through regular interviews and interactions with the Roshi (senior teacher).
Shikantaza is another primary practice for Zen training. Shikantaza means 'just sitting', with moment to moment awareness of the full breadth of the human condition. When we sit in meditation, it is an open all inclusive awareness of breath, thoughts, sounds, feelings, sensations in the body that arise and pass away moment to moment. Shikantaza is the heart of our daily life practice. How to remain centred and mindful in the midst of the chaotic comings and goings of daily life.
Walking meditation (kinhin)
Between each twenty-five minute period of meditation (zazen), we practise walking meditation (kinhin). We walk in a slow, mindful manner and our awareness is directed to each step making contact with the floor. Each step in walking meditation is cultivating a step of peace and presence, so that we can walk in a sacred manner through our life. When we normally walk in our lives, we tend to walk unmindfully, we walk to the shops, to the car, to the office etc., with a list of things to do for the day and tend to switch onto an automatic pilot way of walking. When we cultivate mindful walking, we don't walk to get anywhere specifically, we just walk for the pure experience of walking. We bring mindfulness to whole process and re-claim this simple activity of just walking. When we walk mindfully, each step is a step of peace upon this precious green earth.
There are a range of rituals we use in Zen practice, bowing, sutra chanting, ceremonies and the actual form of zazen. The rituals can be understood in a number of ways.
There are the three traditional bows inside a Zen dojo.
When we first enter a Temple or dojo or sacred space we bow towards the altar, which usually has a statue of a Buddha figure. We bow to show gratitude and respect to the historical Buddha, the whole lineage of teachers and also to the Buddha-nature in all beings. We are not bowing to something other than the essential nature, which resides in our own heart and mind.
The second bow is towards the Sangha the community of practitioners. When we bow to the Sangha we bow to each other, in gratitude for their support and assistance along the path. We are also bowing to the great Sangha of mountains, rivers, stones, clouds, and wheat fields that we are inter-connected to which gives sustenance and nourishment to body and mind.
The third bow is to our cushion. Our cushion is our seat, our place of practice, it also represents our Bodhimada or place of awakening.