By: Venerable Jim Jiang-Wen Kearse 将稳, OEB
When people hear the word “zen”, thoughts often come to mind of old Japanese bald-headed men sitting quietly in robes in dark monasteries and attaining the highest of enlightenment. And that can be zen, but very likely it is not the typical experience of ordinary North Americans.
North American zen is an adapted form, one that fits into the lifestyle of those typically born and raised in North America. I was born in 1960 so I can only speak about my experience, which is likely different from yours, even if you too are from Hamilton, Ontario!
It is highly unlikely however, that you live in a monastery and most likely you have to keep a job for income. So, you can’t spend 12 hours a day in meditation. Yet meditation is the major activity of zen. Therefore, I think it prudent to begin examining Zen from the perspective of meditation.
I’m not going to go on about the benefits of meditation. If you want to know, get on the net and look it up. You’ll find pages of very recent scientific studies of meditation and all of its benefits.
There are all kinds of meditation techniques – so many that it can be overwhelming. My advice when starting out is to look at several, try a few, and settle on a couple.
When beginning anything new, it must be relatively easy and inexpensive to implement. You don’t need to go out and buy all kinds of fancy-schmancy equipment or build a new meditation room on the house to start. Keep your costs low at first. All you need to start is a few moments of quiet throughout the week.
When you do find that time, sit down someplace and relax. Make sure you can sit so that your back is straight and your hips are slightly higher than your knees. A kitchen chair is perfect for this. Sit. Relax. Take a few long, slow, deep breaths. Then sit there for awhile until you’re done.
Many teachers will have you focus on your breath; watch how the abdomen or chest rises and falls with each breath in and each breath out. Some may have you listen to the sounds in the room around you. Still others may have you focus on an object such as a candle flame. All of these techniques are as good as any other. Try them and see if you like them.
For me however, what I’ve found works the best is what I call the Mountain and Clouds technique. This can be done any place because you only need your own mind! Sit down. Relax. Take a few deep, long, slow breaths in and out. When you’re ready to begin, do the following: Imagine a mountain with a high peak. The mountain is still and stable. See this in your mind. Picture the mountain. Now imagine clouds. In your mind you can picture the mountain, being stable and still as the clouds, gently roll by. They do not stop, they simply come and they go. They may surround the mountain and even sometimes obscure it, but they always pass along. Sometimes the clouds are light and wispy. Sometimes they are dark and filled with thunder and lightning. But whether wispy or stormy, the clouds come and the clouds go. The clouds don’t destroy the mountain or carry it away with them; the clouds come and the clouds go. The mountain remains. Continue reading