KYOTO, JAPAN - The gardens of Shunko-in Temple are oases of ordered calm … stately trees, manicured shrubs, sands etched with concentric circles rippling across the surface. The only sounds are the gentle chirping of birds and the rustle of the breeze through the leaves.
It’s an atmosphere ideally suited for escape: from the frenzy of the daily rat-race, from the pressures of work, financial crises, the Kardashian sisters — any of the million other irritants and obligations that surround our lives.
“The gardens are not Zen as such,” says Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, the vice abbot of the temple, as he guides a small group of visitors along the pathway.
“The act of caring for the gardens is Zen, that’s the meditation. Raking is a simple activity, but to do it properly and for the gardens to gain the benefit of it, you have to focus fully on what you’re doing.”
Curiously enough, that’s our first lesson for the day. Shunko-in was founded in the 16th century and has for centuries served as a centre for contemplation and Buddhist scholarship. Recently, Takafumi has begun to offer the principles of zazen (Buddhist meditation) to a wider audience. Western visitors are welcomed to come and enjoy both the beauty and history of the temple and to learn ancient methods to cope with modern stress.
Takafumi is well-suited for the task of opening the sometimes esoteric ways of Japanese Buddhism to foreigners. Takafumi prepared for his calling by studying psychology and religion at Rice University and Arizona State, and he has been deeply involved in human rights causes both in America and Japan. And while he’s an ordained Buddhist priest, Takafumi insists that the principles he teaches are equally useful to skeptics as well as to the more spiritually inclined. “You can separate this from religious practice,” he explains. “Many, many people just use meditation for mental health. There are even programs in U.S. schools where it’s used to help reduce aggressive behaviour and improve performance.”
Takafumi leads us into the temple, the interior of which is equally as charming as the outside. Exquisite silk-screen paintings adorn many of the temple’s sliding door panels where antique figures are brought to life in vibrant colours of gold leaf, lapis lazuli and coral. The scenes also contain disguised messages, some suggesting that Buddhism wasn’t the only religious discipline practiced at Shunko-in.
Above: Kyoto was Japan's former capital and it remains the country's cultural capital in modern times.
“The images indicate a past connection with Christianity,” Takafumi says, pointing to one of the silk-screen panels. “Three sparrows in one panel suggest the Trinity, while lilies represent the Virgin Mary and rose bushes suggest the crown of thorns.”
Over cups of green tea and delicious Japanese sweets, Takafumi outlines the basic principles of Zen meditation and try to dispel any misconceptions we might have.
“Meditation is the focus on personal experience that leads to enlightenment,” he says. “It’s a disciplined self-reflection — training your mind to shut out the externals of present and future and just to live in the present moment.”
By doing so, we can clear out the debris in our minds and realize our true selves. It’s also very important, he says, in our goal-riddled society, to remember that meditation doesn’t lead to the goal, it is the goal.
“Lots of people will take part in this instruction, even learn to meditate and then they’ll say, ‘Okay, what’s the next step?’ ” says Takafumi. “Well, there is no next step.”
Perhaps sensing some confusion on our faces — or maybe just mine — Takafumi assures us that short of total enlightenment, sincere and dedicated practitioners (and Takafumi stresses that those two qualities are key) can derive all sorts of benefits — spiritual, emotion and even physical.
Now that he’s laid the groundwork, Takafumi tells us it’s time to put what we’ve learned into practice, so he leads us into the meditation room. It too is beautiful in its simplicity. Rows of small cushions are placed on the tatami mat floor, while windows in the plain, wood-panelled walls open out onto the idyllic gardens.
Takafumi takes his place at the front of the room and invites us to sit comfortably on the cushions.
“Should we sit in the lotus position?” asks one woman, who has clearly done her homework.
Takafumi says it really doesn’t matter how we sit, as long as we’re in a comfortable position that can be maintained easily throughout the meditation. “After all,” he says, “meditation isn’t meant to be torture.”
We all choose a pillow and sit more or less upright, with some creaking and cracking on my part as joints and sinews which haven’t bent that way in quite some time strain against each other.
The session, Takafumi tells us, will begin when he taps two blocks of wood together and will last as long as it takes for an incense stick to burn down to the end — about 15 minutes. He’ll ring a small bell to let us know when it’s over.
He urges us to concentrate on our breathing — “the most basic human activity,” he says — taking the air in deeply through the nose, then out through the mouth. Rhythmically, not forced or gasping.
Pick a point to look at, he says, something in the garden, or a spot on the floor, but don’t bring it in to sharp focus. Let it blur softly, like a distant scene. Then, “just let your mind go. Release your thoughts from the million things that clutter your conscious.” Above all, he says, don’t fidget.
Takafumi sits for a moment and, as the silence descends, lights the incense and gently taps the blocks of wood together. Instantly, I’m seized by an almost uncontrollable desire to fidget. My mind races, almost in a panic, to find something, anything to think about. It’s acting like a lost child, frantically looking for its mother.
It’s really quite surprising — and disappointing. Thinking about it, I realize that apart from being asleep, I can’t recall the last time I spent 15 minutes in total silence, literally alone without my thoughts. I find myself sneaking sidelong glances at my companions, all of whom seem to be “getting it” a heck of a lot better than I am.
It’s a genuine struggle, but with much more effort than I ever thought would be necessary, I manage to calm down a bit and begin to let my mind drift. Just as I feel that I might actually be able to pull it off, I hear the tinkle of the bell indicating the end of the session.
Takafumi must perceive my shame (surely I’m not the only participant ever to fail so miserably?) because as we’re walking toward the door, he says, encouragingly, “Remember, the purpose of meditation is not to become good at meditating. This one-time exercise wasn’t intended to solve all your problems. But if you can apply some of the things you’ve learned here, you’ll realize that you can change your life, if you want to.”
I’m not sure that I’m able or ready to go quite that far, but one thing that I am sure of — this experience has been very enlightening.
• Air Canada offers daily flights to Tokyo & Osaka.
• Best time to visit Kyoto is the cherry blossom spring.
• Reaching Kyoto from either Tokyo or Osaka is easy on the Japan’s renowned bullet trains.
• Tour East Holidays offers many tour options to Japan that include visits to Kyoto. For information go to www.toureast.com